The rise of corporate research funding

Adrian Mulligan reveals the results of Elsevier’s recent study into research funding. With a change in direction across fields there are many opportunities researchers should embrace

A recent study of 1,000 researchers globally revealed that 50%  believe there is insufficient funding available in their field, and despite the impact of research in tackling Covid-19, researchers are feeling despondent about the future of their work. 

COVID-19 has rewritten the funding rulebook. University income streams have been squeezed and research put on hold during the pandemic, while much government and philanthropic funding has refocused squarely on beating the pandemic. In the USA alone $5 billion were allocated to vaccine research, while the Gates Foundation, one of the world’s biggest philanthropic funding sources, refocused all of its health resources on the pandemic . That changing landscape has created a near miraculous opportunity to end the pandemic, but at the same time, created winners and losers in research.

Across last year, materials science saw great growth in funding satisfaction among its researchers, with 35% saying that available funding is sufficient, almost three times the 12% who were satisfied with funding levels a year ago. However, researchers in this area are slightly less confident than they were last year that funding will continue to increase in the next two to three years. Those in Medicine saw a directionally upward shift in their funding.

At the other end of the scale, researchers in the fields of Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Engineering and Maths are far less satisfied with the levels of funding available than they were last year. Just one in four researchers working in Engineering reported sufficient funding, down from 39% a year ago. Satisfaction with funding has dropped by about half for those working in Chemistry and Earth & Environmental Sciences over the same period and has fallen even further for those working in Maths, where just 10% say they now have sufficient funding, down from 40% a year ago. 

Corporate funding stands at 12% of overall funding in 2021, 41% of researchers expect it to grow over the next two to three years

Even those with funding are experiencing more hurdles than ever before. 51% of those surveyed said that there are more funding requirements now compared to 2-3 years ago, rising to 62% for those in Life Sciences. Requirements include producing more research publications, increased progress reporting and evidence of inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Among the most interesting findings from the project, however, is the growth of corporate funding across disciplines. Corporate funding stands at 12% of overall funding in 2021, 41% of researchers expect it to grow over the next two to three years. This compares to just 19% who expect their funding from their university to grow. Researchers in the fields of Computer Science and Medicine report an increase in funding from corporate or philanthropic sources compared with year ago, 48% and 46% respectively expect their corporate funding to grow. 

It’s natural to ask whether growth in corporate funding is a healthy development for research. The answer can be mixed. Industry funding often goes hand in hand with a corresponding rise in academic/industry collaboration, providing researchers with access to money and equipment and the ability to speed up results.

A perfect example of that is in climate research. Solutions to climate change offer hugely profitable opportunities for industry, with major firms investing in the area along with venture capitalists (VC). VC funding is predicted to reach a record high of $26 billion in 2021 for climate tech-focused funds and $58 billion for climate tech companies. This is a huge new source of funding for an important area of research. 

However, there can be tensions around ownership of the resulting intellectual property, and, for industry, the focus can be on short-term results as well as applied science, offering little solace to basic science and the arts and humanities as they search for new funding sources.

With that said, at a time when researchers are looking to new sources for investment, corporate partners are able and willing to support their work. It’s an opportunity for researchers to engage new funding sources but corporate partners aren’t able to solve every problem, moreover there is a need to choose partners that share common goals and enable terms that will allow for successful outcomes for all parties. 

However you choose to view the role of corporates in the research ecosystem, with the perception of government funding narrowing, and universities looking for new funding sources, their place only seems set to grow. To make those partnerships a success, both sides need to learn how to set the terms needed for success. 

Adrian Mulligan is research director at Elsevier



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