R&D Outsourcing and the Economics of Innovation

The Institute for the Future (ITFT) has set up a project called Delta Scan, speculating on the future of science and technology for the years 2005-2055. It includes a plausible argument on increased R&D outsourcing and offshoring. And a good, concise collection of references.

A shift in R&D processes from “ivory tower” models to global networks of contractors and alliances could have a significant impact on the economics of innovation. [...]

Over the next 20 years, the geography of R&D may shift again – from regional clusters in the developed world to global networks with large outsourced operations in the developing world. India and China, in particular, will provide large pools of highly skilled workers at 25% to 50% of the cost of their counterparts in the West and Japan. The Indian government estimates that outsourced R&D in India currently generates about $1 billion annually; this is projected to rise to $11 billion by 2008, mostly in software. China's manufacturing capacity gives it a natural advantage in computer hardware R&D. Both nations also have the long-term potential for large-scale work in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

The trend towards sourcing R&D off-shore may change the economic significance of sourcing services off-shore generally. Up to now, the practice has tended to free up capital and labour in developing countries and provided resources for the creation of new, higher value-added enterprises. However, some of the R&D jobs that may be outsourced are among the most highly prized.

Serious obstacles still remain, in particular, quality control and the protection of intellectual property. Furthermore, for the near future R&D outsourcing will be limited to 'modular innovation', namely incremental improvements in existing lines of research. Radical, breakthrough innovation will continue to be the domain of regional clusters in developed countries.

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