Duke Innovation and Scientific Research Network

The Changing Structure of American Innovation

The COVID-19 mRNA vaccine was a result of the joint efforts of three types of organization. University of Pennsylvania researchers, notably Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, performed some of the foundational research. Startups, including BioNTech, Moderna, and Arbutus, among others, developed key elements of the technology required to safely deliver the vaccine. Established pharmaceutical firms, notably Pfizer, were responsible for testing, production, and distribution. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech developed the vaccine internally, whereas Moderna, the other major supplier of COVID vaccines in the United States, benefited from significant government research funding. This division of labor in innovation, which allowed multiple firms to contribute, is a notable component of the US innovation ecosystem.

Corporations are withdrawing from scientific research

The institutional and economic arrangements under which the commercial application of new knowledge occurs differ from those that govern the creation of new knowledge, even when both take place inside a single organization. These arrangements have evolved over time, and bear the marks of this evolution. 

Together with our collaborators, we have studied the evolving specialization of US innovation and the rise and fall of industrial research. Though it still flourishes in fields such as artificial intelligence, the corporate lab’s heyday was from the 1930s until the 1980s. Many leading US firms have withdrawn from scientific research, closing their labs or reorienting them toward applications rather than basic science.

As long as scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems.

Vannevar Bush