Researchers’ aims diverge

Kari Siegle

The University’s Institute of Technology receives a major portion of its budget from outside research. As some federal sources dwindle, IT is looking for ways to solicit more industrial funding.
Last year the majority of the University’s Institute of Technology’s annual budget — $78 million of it — was funded by grants that faculty members received to fund their research.
In an effort to better coordinate partnerships with industry and increase the levels of corporate research funding, IT is creating a central industrial assistance program set to begin sometime this summer.
The new industrial assistance program will mean increased corporate funding of research in IT. By making it easier for companies — especially smaller ones without previous IT contact — to access faculty and facilities, the increased ability to finance University marketable research is evident.
Departments that benefited from and continue to capitalize on industrial funding are those that work predominately on applied research, which are discoveries that can be directly turned into marketable products.
IT administrators plan to vie for an increased number of on-campus research centers that will bring a corresponding increase in corporate research dollars. The result will be a new high in corporate funding for University research.
“I believe (that) in the future, the federal government is going to concentrate its funding on basic research, and more and more we’re going to have applied research going to the private sector,” said Willard Miller, IT associate dean of Finance and Planning.
Other IT departments, such as chemistry and astronomy, predominately study basic science, or fundamental principles governing the universe that have no immediate direct applications. These departments rely heavily on federal money, and faculty members say the governmental cash sources show no signs of future decline.
Research centers: cash cows or classrooms?
Traditionally, federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation parcel out money to universities in two primary ways.
The first is directly through a professor or other faculty member who uses the money to fund whatever research he or she is pursuing.
The second method is to establish research centers on campus, which may employ members of different departments working on interdisciplinary projects.
“Industry, universities and federal labs are not opponents of the process of research enterprise — just different parts of it,” said Elizabeth Starbuck, associate director of technology transfer for the Center for Interfacial Engineering at the University.
IT Dean H. Ted Davis said he hopes to dramatically increase the University’s number of such centers, which often receive some federal money.
Davis said in order for IT to get its fair share of federal money, it needs to have a mixture of individual researchers and centers like the Center for Interfacial Engineering.
Starbuck said the center, founded in 1988, evolved from a federal initiative to foster more interdisciplinary research in universities.
The center began as one of 19 National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centers. Each center focuses on a different technology important to U.S. economy.
Studies at the University’s research center achieve the foundation’s interdisciplinary goal, meaning researchers — who are drawn mainly from IT and the Medical School — work together on projects with industry researchers.
The center involves University and industrial researchers working on projects in four main areas, all of which study the interaction of substances on a molecular level.
The center has an annual budget of more than $7 million and is funded by the University, the state of Minnesota, the National Science Foundation and various member companies, including 3M, Dow Corning Corp. and Xerox Corp.
Starbuck said that because federal labs have downsized and companies find themselves competing globally, industry seeks universities as partners to develop new technologies.
“We’re really standing on the brink of radical transition and change,” said Starbuck of the research funding model.
Companies push to have universities work on fundamental knowledge, Starbuck said, because they can’t spend the time or money to do the work but realize its future importance.
“Several have said, ‘We know how to develop and make things, and universities don’t. Universities are good at developing ideas and knowledge,'” Starbuck said.
In the Center for Interfacial Engineering, research projects are mutually determined by company employees and faculty members. Starbuck said the research is usually of long-term value to the company, yet is innovative enough to attract the interest of faculty members.
Corporate goals versusacademic needs
Although companies and the University share research needs, there are some differences that need to be addressed, Starbuck said.
For example, corporations are designed to create products and money for their shareholders, but universities produce research and educate students.
This dichotomy can be seen in the difference between the open, sharing environment of a university, where articles based on research are published in academic journals, Starbuck said.
In contrast, when ideas reach a certain point in company research, they need to be kept secret in order to give the company a competitive edge.
“That is totally appropriate for companies and totally inappropriate for universities,” Starbuck said.
However, some critics of the effort to increase corporate funding believe the entire relationship is inappropriate.
Lawrence Soley, a former University professor and the author of a book titled “Leasing the Ivory Tower,” said that during his five years at the University, not a day went by that he didn’t hear of new corporate-University ties, or new industry-funded centers being established on campus.
One problem some universities have found with industry-funded research, Soley said, is that professors are forced to sign restrictive contracts that prohibit them from publishing articles related to corporate-funded research. The company is also given the right to censor research reports based on its funding.
University administrators, though, believe the problem can be overcome. One way to bridge the gap between confidential and open information, Miller said, is to take the basic principles of the research out of the specific context in which they were discovered.
For example, if researchers are working with a company product, they could report the process from the specific instance — using it in a theoretical model — without disclosing company secrets.
Universities: trade schoolsor ivory towers?
Starbuck said another advantage of industry working with universities is that researchers discover industrial trends, and, as a result, become more employable.
“Students involved in the center move more easily into industry because they understand more what the culture is like,” Starbuck said.
Soley questions whether this is the proper role of an institution of higher education. Receiving a lion’s share of industrial funding causes a fundamental change in the role of the university within society, he said.
“(Companies) donate only because they expect something in return for their money,” Soley said, adding that instead of learning in an academic environment, universities are being turned into trade schools. “The corporations either directly or indirectly call the tune for the professors associated with the institution.”
Mostafa Kaveh, head of the electrical engineering department, said there is a recent emphasis on large-group and interdisciplinary projects in both federal and industrial circles.
“There is a lot more emphasis on what we call short-term applied research,” Kaveh said. “It’s much more goal-oriented and, to some extent, more product application-oriented in engineering areas.”
He said this is true even when federal money sponsors research.
Although many engineering departments have increasing industrial ties, other departments such as astronomy and chemistry receive adequate funding from federal agencies.
W. Ronald Gentry, chairman of the chemistry department, said federal funding increases each year in the chemistry department.
“Our projects span the range from very basic to relatively applied,” Gentry said.
He said that although there has been concern over budget cuts in federal research agencies, the two that fund most of his department’s research — the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health — have relatively stable budgets.
Although some companies support departmental research activities annually, such as paying graduate students during the summer, the department itself does not do anything to try to solicit corporate funding, Gentry said.
But for other engineering departments, industrial partnerships are becoming more common and with the new industrial assistance program, they could increase even more.
Matthew Tirrell, head of the chemical engineering and materials science department, said another change departments will face is project financing on a short-term basis.
“Even if they are interested, they’re often not willing to make the long-term commitment that’s necessary,” Tirrell said.
He said this is different from federal government funding in which an agency will often make a three- to five-year fiscal commitment to a project.
Applied research in the University is important, Kaveh said, because consumers want to know their tax dollars are going to a direct, tangible end. But, he said, it is important that researchers are willing to pursue corporate-sponsored initiatives.
“We don’t want to be a product office for companies. We want to work with them, certainly, and have a service component,” Kaveh said.
Bringing more businessto the University
The new industrial assistance program is designed to be accessed by companies that need IT faculty or facilities. A central office will answer questions and connect companies to faculty members willing to help with technical problems.
Miller said IT already has a great deal of interactions with industry but it is ineffectively spread over the numerous departments and centers.
Beginning last fall, John Niethammer, an employee of Minnesota Technology Inc., began working with IT to help coordinate the program. Minnesota Technology is a nonprofit corporation that assists small Minnesota manufacturing companies.
Companies are expected to approach IT with problems, but an outreach effort explaining what IT offers will be conducted via company visits and mailings.
Using World Wide Web pages and other electronic databases, information such as faculty research interests, inventories of departmental and center research activities and information on past industrial problems encountered by IT faculty will be listed.
Miller said IT needs the centralized office because of the explosion of small high-tech companies in Minnesota, many of which are involved in software development. These companies often have short-term needs and are not well-connected to IT.
What often happens, Miller said, is that a small company will try calling a department for help, but will wind up talking to someone who doesn’t know where to direct the call.
“We are not used to dealing with them,” Miller said.
He said IT is accustomed to assisting large companies that are usually familiar with departmental contacts.
“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re going pell mell to give support to the latest industrial fad. That’s not true,” Miller said.
He said outreach and service is one of IT’s missions as part of a land-grant university. Students also benefit from possible internships and research opportunities, he added.
He said new technology, such as the World Wide Web and other opportunities for distance learning, will change education and make it more competitive.
“In the ’60s, universities could be considered ivory towers, and today they can’t be seen as that because the boundaries between it and the rest of society have blurred,” Miller said.
But for some critics of university-industrial partnerships, such as Soley, the potential benefits are outweighed by the idea that universities are steering into the arms of industry and away from the academic nature on which they were founded.
This trend will continue, Soley said, as long as legislators and citizens refuse to make universities accountable for what they do with their money.
“Clearly, someone benefits, but I don’t believe the University as a whole does, and I don’t believe students do generally,” Soley said. “It’s going from the ivory tower to the toilet bowl.”
But Davis disagrees.
“I am confident we can maintain the right balance between academic freedom, basic ideas and research and response to industrial desires for technology transfer,” Davis said.