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The trillion-dollar contribution of scientific research to the economy

A CGI image showing what $1 trillion looks like compared to a football pitch and a human being.
Is that all? This example shows what $1 trillion looks like on a human scale: it takes up more space than a soccer pitch, that's how much. Each tiny individual block seen in this image represents 2 million $100-dollar bills. An adult human can be seen for scale in the bottom-left-hand corner. And this is just $1 trillion; according to MIT's research, their contribution to the economy was $2 trillion. Image courtesy morn1415, YouTube.

How much economic impact does university research make? Well, at the end of 2006, alumni from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the US, has generated 25,800 active companies, employed 3.3 million people, and generated annual world revenues of nearly $2 trillion (€1.5 trillion) over 150 years, according to a blog post by Bill St. Arnaud, a research and engineering (R&E) network and green IT consultant.

If this group of MIT-graduate-founded companies were a single nation, it would be the 11th-largest or 17th-largest economy in the world (depending on the extrapolation used). This data comes from a study, called the Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT published in 2009 and updated in 2011, that looked at the university's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This MIT study looked at the economic activity of students exposed to the latest research developments and how this affected jobs, new businesses, and commercialization of academic research. A massive survey was conducted of companies founded by MIT alumni. But, this is just the impact of one highly successful university; what about the barriers to technology and knowledge transfer which also exist?.

The report concludes: "Numerous changes are needed in most universities over an extended period of time in rules, regulations and, more important, attitudes and institutional culture." Contrary to what you might think about encouraging entrepreneurism, the report says that if an institution deliberately tries to quickly become more entrepreneurial along the lines of MIT, it would take an amazing degree of patience and restraint - over many, many years in fact.

Another study by University of Toronto researchers, The (Teaching) Role of Universities in the Diffusion of the Internet, identified the early-stage growth in the commercial internet was due to universities teaching students in the mid-1990s. This driver exposed them to the benefit of this technology at their community colleges and universities. Then, the students diffused this knowledge to the rest of the US population. Just think of the web giants of Google and Facebook, started by university graduates.

But, according to Arnaud, few other studies such as this have been undertaken to measure the impact of R&E networks and e-infrastructures or cyber-infrastructures. However, the European-Commission funded e·nventory project has developed interactive and user-friendly visualizations to help give funders, researchers, and the public a clearer picture of e-infrastructure impact in Europe, and the ERINA+ study is looking at the socio-economic impact of e-infrastructure.

In the US, Arnaud says, the big data challenge is the creation of applications that cross-reference entrepreneurial outcomes with sources of inspiration of academic research. This could be supported with data from social networks such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate, and combined with academic collaboration tools such as SURFconext, for example.

More information can be found onBill St. Arnaud's blog post.

- Adrian Giordani

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