Industry grants raise concerns

Kari Siegle

This year, more than half the Institute of Technology’s annual budget — nearly $78 million — came from research grants. This is more money than the college receives from all other funding sources combined, including tuition, state money and alumni gifts.
Although sources of research funding in IT have changed throughout the years and the majority of research is sponsored by the federal government, the number of corporate dollars supporting University of Minnesota researchers has risen steadily.
Indeed, some IT facilities such as the Center for Interfacial Engineering have taken industry-sponsored research to new heights. While the practice has drawn praise from beleaguered administrators struggling to cope with shrinking budgets, it has also drawn criticism from those who question if the practice represents the hijacking of higher education.
This growing partnership between industry and universities is the result of a reduced rate of governmental funding for higher education, increasingly expensive research and — in an era of downsizing — fewer industry dollars available for in-house product research and development.
Critics say this relationship works only to industries’ advantage by providing access to low-risk, low-cost partners in technology development. Universities, these critics say, are left with only a remnant of their reputations as educators.
“When companies give money, they give strings,” said David Nobel, co-founder of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog group.
But University administrators call corporate funding the trend in higher education. “It’s a change in direction we have to adapt to,” said Richard Goldstein, head of IT’s mechanical engineering department.
A response to downsizing
Industrial interest in sponsoring University research projects — usually chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering — is based, in part, on the decrease in many companies’ research budgets.
Some companies — such as American Telephone & Telegraph Co., which in the past year has cut loose thousands of workers — have scaled down or even eliminated research laboratories because of the expense associated with maintaining increasingly high-tech equipment needed to create competitive products.
“Companies can’t readily afford to do their own research,” said Matthew Tirrell, head of the chemical engineering and materials science department.
As a result, companies sponsor University research projects that will benefit their companies.
H. Ted Davis, dean of IT, said the amount of federal research money will decline throughout the years. This, combined with diminishing state money for IT, means the already-blurred line between industry and University labs will become even fuzzier if University programs are to continue.
“I see a greater need in universities for private and industrial funding of research,” Davis said. “The pressure will be here for broadening sources of support beyond traditional federal agencies. The extent to which (industrial and IT collaboration) happens is determined by external forces and not by the dean’s office.”
But some people don’t share Davis’ vision.
Research center orcorporate front?
“Personally, I think it erodes academic freedom at the University because the companies set the direction of the tone of the University,” said Lawrence Soley, a former University professor now teaching at Marquette University.
Soley, who has written a book titled “Leasing the Ivory Tower” about corporate funding within academia, said this shift to industry support has been in the works for years. In his book, Soley points out that research centers are the method of choice for corporations to fund university work — and ultimately, their own new products.
Through the creation of new interdisciplinary centers on campus, corporations team University researchers with their industrial counterparts. In fact, nearly every IT professor has worked with or is working on projects with companies, meaning the industrial presence on campus and in laboratories is inescapable.
Willard Miller, IT associate dean of Finance and Planning, said in the past, the government used the Cold War to justify support for defense research. With this threat gone, the new governmental mandate is for universities to work more closely with industry to help the country’s economic structure.
One piece of legislation designed to help implement this cooperation passed in the early 1980s, at the same time student loan programs and money for grant-giving federal agencies were being cut.
The Bayh-Dole Act, sponsored by Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., and Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., gave universities the ability to patent government-funded research that would likely produce money in the future.
The legislation spawned a wave of bureaucratic activity across the country and in the University as schools hurried to cash in on their new ability to transfer technology to the private sector.
The University Board of Regents in 1982 directed administrators to develop guidelines for University-industry relationships.
As a result of that directive, the University in 1983 merged its Office of Patents and Licensing with the Office of Research and Technology Transfer Administration.
ORTTA, as the office is now called, works to secure patents and licensing agreements for University faculty members in return for a portion of any future royalties.
Miller said the corporate direction IT is taking is a response to a combination of factors, including a general realization that funding from the state is not going to pick up in the near future and may decline.
“It’s not that we’re going to give up everything else and pursue funding from industry,” Miller said, adding that IT does not require that researchers solicit company sponsorship. “That’s just one piece of a big mosaic.”
IT administrators said other methods of increasing funding include a plan to raise tuition in the future and solicit more donations from alumni and companies.
‘Applicable’ research sought
In the chemical engineering and materials science department, faculty members actively solicit industrial support but also find that companies come to them, Tirrell said.
Ten years ago, the level of industrial support was substantially less than it is now.
Tirrell called industry-supported research in the department “applicable,” which means it is basic research carried out with the idea that some aspects of it could be useful for industry.
One major area of his department’s research involves plastics. Researchers study plastics not only to find out more about their fundamental structure, Tirrell said, but because the corporations need future workers skilled in this area.
Patrick Carey, an IBM higher-education client representative, said that while IBM’s research budget has not been cut dramatically, it has focused more funding on applied research that can be directly implemented into marketable products.
“We’re very focused on getting research out the door in products,” Carey said.
This focus on product, Soley said, can sometimes override what a researcher wants or needs to study. Moreover, he said, industry funding sources often exert covert pressure on researchers to study what a contributing company wants in order to maintain the cash flow.
But Davis, the IT dean, said professors are not going to change their research solely because of what a company wants.
“It’s more a question of the professor attracting the attention of a company than the company trying to buy the attention of a professor,” Davis said.
Despite Davis’ statement, professors could soon have another incentive to increase corporate research dollars. One of the proposed revisions to the University’s tenure code would tie a professor’s pay to the amount of research grants awarded.
Teachers or researchers?
Throughout the years, IBM has supported the University with cash gifts, research grants, equipment gifts and technical support valued at more than $25 million.
In 1996, for the second year in a row, the University has the highest number of professors involved in IBM’s University Partners Program, which donates cash or equipment to university professors working on research projects. Six University faculty members were awarded IBM funding, the most of any of the more than 50 universities involved in the program worldwide.
Carey said IBM tends to find researchers who are working on projects related to ones the company is studying.
He said IBM researchers enjoy working with University researchers because they bring fresh ideas to problems IBM might experience with new software or hardware.
“We do it to get other smart people working on the same thing,” Carey said.
Carey said when IBM gives money to universities it is not philanthropy, but an investment.
“IBM does it for its business needs,” Carey said.
Mostafa Kaveh, head of the electrical engineering department, said it is rare for a company or the federal government to give researchers money to work on whatever they want.
He said this is sometimes frustrating because often the direction of research is determined by “hot areas,” or areas of interest to industry and Washington, D.C.
“You do have to be on the lookout and see where things are going or you need to be the leader in creating things,” Kaveh said.
Soley said universities have turned away from their real mission of education because they are more concerned with professors securing research funding than with lesson plans.
“If the emphasis for professors was on teaching and not research, they wouldn’t have to go out and secure grants and contracts,” Soley said.
Both Miller and Davis said research is an important part of IT’s mission, along with education and outreach services.
Students, Miller said, benefit by working with faculty on research projects because they see what working in the real world is like, either by working with industrial researchers on projects or in summer internships at companies.
“We’re always thinking about the balance between the need for funding and the ability to accomplish the mission of the University,” Davis said.