I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussing the National Robotics Initiative (NRI). The NRI is in its 5th year, so we were asked to describe “the return on investment” of the program. Various panel members pointed out how focused and energized robotics is on high-value, relevant applications, and how it has created new startups, a new cohort of students who will power the next wave of R&D innovation, and, of course, a host of new research results.
But what does this really mean? What is the actual “return on investment” of CS-based research?
There’s no simple answer, but here are a few numbers that anyone asked this question should keep in mind:
- The entire budget of the CISE directorate, which funds roughly 83% of academic research in the US, is just under $1B (more precisely, 933M for FY 2015).
- In comparison, the current size of the GDP attributed by IT industry is roughly $1T – about 7% of the US economy. So, by this measure, the return on investment on programs like NRI is more than 1000-1!
- If you include all federal funding related to information technology R&D (based on the NITRD budget) the number is about $4B. So, by that measure, the return is 250-1 – still a venture capitalist’s dream!
- If you look at the 10 largest companies by market capitalization, half of the companies make their revenues primarily based on IT innovations – Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon. No other sector has more than 2!
- If you look at the net revenues (not gross!) of just these companies (neglecting the long tail of other IT companies), just 1% of their revenues exceeds the entire CISE budget – so the return on investment is at least 100-1.
At the end of our panel, we were asked to discuss the future investments in NRI. In retrospect, we should have pointed out that the future was already in that room. A future where the disabled will walk with the aid of exoskeletons, a future where manufacturing will be more efficient, safer, and more flexible using reprogrammable robots, or a future where automated transport allows my aging mother to live independently at home for many years to come.
I just wish I could have given every student in that room a dollar – it would have been the best investment I ever made in my life.