14. November 2014 · Comments Off on Research and Development: Who Funds It and What Libraries Can Learn About It · Categories: Uncategorized


(Photo of Bryan Johnson taken by Jason Henry for the Wall Street Journal)

The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims wrote an article back on October 21, 2014 entitled, “Our Last Great Hope: Venture Capital”. This is an important article dealing with funding. See http://on.wsj.com/1FD39L1.

Simply put the article discusses the funding trends for research and development in the U.S. from the 1960s onward. In the 1960s the federal government took on the role of the primary funding source of research and development. However, as Mims writes the federal government was never supposed to the sole funding source forever and private enterprise was designated to pick up where the federal government left off. Today the federal government funds one third of the research and development in the U.S. with the private sector funding the rest.

The problem Mims points to is that big businesses now are primarily funding development and not research. “Long gone are the days when large corporate research campuses like Bell Labs came up with the fundamental breakthroughs like the transistor.”

In order to carryout research many companies simply buy out start-up firms. As the article says, “Acquisitions are the new R&D (research and development), and “acqui-hires” are the new staff development.”

So who funds the start-ups that do the bulk of the risk taking on research and development? The answer is the venture capitalists. One in particular is the center of Mims’ article. Enter Bryan Johnson, who has committed $100 million, to fund “crazy” projects. As Mims writes, these include projects to capture an asteroid and mine it, increase and lengthen human life, and create self-flying drones. What does Johnson get out of it? According to him, “I may lose all this money, but the goal is to try and build a better world.” Granted this is certainly not normal as most venture capitalists are looking for a return on investment, but the comment should get us thinking about private individuals who are willing to fund projects regardless of success or failure.

I wonder in library land if maybe we should be looking at funding through the lens that Mims describes? Those librarians who find themselves coming up empty when asking for traditional funding from government and big name private sources could possibly look to private individuals for funding or at least guidance. What “crazy” projects do librarians have that would warrant interest from the venture capitalist community? What are our dreams and goals? Looking to private individuals is nothing totally new. Did not Carnegie and Pratt help finance public library systems in our major cities?

Comments closed.