The Economic Impact of Engineering Research Centers: Preliminary Results of a Pilot Study


Roessner, D., Manrique, L. & Park, J. The economic impact of engineering research centers: preliminary results of a pilot study. J Technol Transf 35, 475–493 (2010).


This article describes the results of a pilot study that tested the feasibility of estimating quantitatively the regional and economic impacts of NSF-supported Engineering Research centers. For regional impacts, we combined estimates of the direct plus indirect and induced economic impacts of ERC expenditures generated from a regional input–output model with estimates of the additional impact on the state due to center-based start-up companies, licensing income from intellectual property produced by the center, the cost savings enjoyed by local firms that had hired center graduates, and advice and consulting to local firms by center faculty. For national economic impact, a suitably modified version of the regional approach was employed, supplemented by use of a consumer surplus model to estimate the net public benefits of newly commercialized technologies based in center research. As the project proceeded, it became clear that efforts to focus solely on economic impacts that could be quantified relatively easily would greatly underestimate the actual national economic impact of ERCs. The types of impacts included and the kinds of data collected from centers and their collaborating companies were therefore expanded in the later case studies. Results of the first three cases are described here; findings from the remaining two studies did not change our overall results or conclusions. The profile of regional and, especially, national economic impact estimates varied widely across the centers studied. Only some of these variations could be attributed to ERC characteristics; most were the result of variations in the amount and type of data that could be obtained from the centers involved and the companies they worked with. We concluded that even the most conscientious and costly data collection efforts would be unlikely to yield comparable data across centers because the accessibility of key data, especially proprietary data, will differ unpredictably from center to center. Further, focusing on narrowly-conceived, quantifiable economic data alone should be avoided in these kinds of impact studies. Doing so distorts the amount and characteristics of actual impacts, many of which—perhaps most of which—cannot feasibly be converted to monetary terms. Such a narrow focus will greatly underestimate the impact of ERC-like centers, masking the much broader and, based on our findings, larger and more significant impacts on society.

Keywords: University research centers, Evaluation, Economic impact, Methodology

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