0117corning fusion

 Corning’s fusion process needs glass scientists and engineers who really understand the factors that determine glass properties and how to control them. Will the company be able to find them? Credit: Corning Inc.

Industry and academia have an implicit deal. Colleges and universities educate and train young minds for a life of inquiry and productivity.  Industry hires graduates who contribute to the economic welfare of the country (and maybe the university) through the products and services they produce on behalf of their employer. The economy grows, profit flows to the company, relevance of academic research is proved—and, ideally, supported—and students are attracted to interesting research that will reward them with a fulfilling career.

The question is, is there evidence that the deal is working?

Industry depends on universities to educate a workforce, but it does not have much direct say in what happens at universities. Some academic research is funded by industry, but most academic research is federally funded by agencies like the National Science Foundation, NIST, DOE, and others and also at the state and local government levels.

The agency based model of funding necessarily means that the research is not appropriable, that is, the benefit—return on investment—does not go back to the investor (the agency). Through open literature publication, research is disseminated globally for anyone to use.

Last fall, Science Magazine published the Presidential Address given by former AAAS president William Press. The address was “What’s So Special About Science (And How Much Should We Spend on It?),” and he tackles the issue thoughtfully and eloquently. He discusses the issue of appropriability of science research funding. He says that, in the United States, R&D investment “has largely kept pace with the size of the US economy.”

In his speech, Press attributes up to 85% of the economy’s growth to theories developed by Nobel Prize winning economist, Robert Solow. Solow’s work showed that only a fraction of economic growth can be explained by production-related growth, such as more capital investment and more human capital. The unattributed growth—the “Solow residual”—comes from technological progress. Innovation. Press explains, “As a factor of production, technology produces wealth and produces more technological progress, enabling a virtuous cycle of exponential growth.”

In other words, more of us want tablets, smartphones, and flat screen TVs. In turn, these manufacturers invest in more production capacity and labor to continue the virtuous cycle, and the economy grows.

So it is no wonder then, that the folks at Corning Incorporated, who are on the front lines of the “technological progress” relating to tablets, smartphones, and flat screen televisions, worry about finding scientists and engineers who help the company continue to drive innovation and new product development.

A group of Corning scientists, led by ACerS member John Mauro, turned to the literature to evaluate whether university glass research programs are preparing students—the next generation of innovators—adequately for careers in industry where they can drive technological progress and create new products.  They evaluated the literature to get an overview of glass research trends at US universities since 2007 and reported their findings in the ACerS International Journal of Applied Glass Science.

In an email Mauro says Corning is struggling to fill its open positions, partly because too few research programs focus on silicate glass systems, which are the most industrially important. Even at the BS level, he says students enter the job market with too little ceramic and glass knowledge.

He and his coauthors hope to build a healthy pipeline of students for the glass industry. Mauro says in an email, “I think this should have a nonlinear benefit: As more talented students enter the workforce, the rate of technical innovation should only accelerate, thereby growing the industry further.” And that is classic Solow economic theory.

The group classified 925 papers published between 2007–2013 according to type of glass system, type of study (properties, processing, applications, etc.), and correlation of number of papers published to level of NSF funding for glass science research. The group concluded that there has been too little research into areas of industrial interest. They say in the paper, “If research in the field of glass science is not sufficiently focused on topics of technical relevance for future industrial applications, it will become increasingly difficult to meet the challenges faced by the US glass industry and less likely that future researchers in this field will have the required skills and expertise needed to enable the US glass industry to compete globally.”

Which begs the question of what comprises “technical relevance for future industrial applications?”

Mauro, et al, address this and provide a list of fundamental research topics that they feel have not been adequately resolved from an industry perspective and which they feel could launch careers for the students engaged in such projects. The open access paper provides a good deal of justification for each topic, which interested readers can read online. The topics are

  • Glass structure-property relationships
  • Predictive modeling of liquidus temperature and viscosity
  • Fundamentals of glass relaxation
  • Glass brittleness and breakage
  • Chemical durability of glass
  • Acoustic properties of glass
  • Thermal conductivity of glass
  • Optical properties of glass
  • Glass surfaces
  • Glass formation under high pressure conditions
  • Heterogeneous and structured glasses
  • Glass melting and processing

The paper is “Glass Science in the United States: Current Status and Future Directions,” John C. Mauro, Charles S. Philip, Daniel J. Vaughn, and Michael S. Pambianchi, International Journal of Applied Glass Science (DOI: 10.1111/ijag.12058)