We need to improve the industry-academia research relationship

by Brian Herman, Published on October 6, 2014

Scientists won’t solve the world’s most pressing problems – world hunger, poor healthcare in the developing world, the spread of infectious diseases, to name a few – without industry and academia joining forces.

Industry needs the intellectual capital and research smarts embedded within the academy, while academics need the brain trust, financing, and dogged focus of industry.

A recent report by the American Academy of Arts & Science rings the alarm bells on the state of research funding in the U.S., calling for “establishing a more robust national government-university-industry research partnership” as a counterweight to falling federal budgets.

All well and good. But before that can happen, a large cultural hurdle must be overcome for these partnerships to flourish.

At issue is that, in general, faculty do not embrace turning research into products and services, and they are hesitant to collaborate closely with industry and pursue commercialization opportunities. This comes from the wellspring of academic independence — a concern that industry collaborations may potentially limit a faculty’s ability to freely criticize the industry collaborator.

Some faculty question whether a university that promotes public-private partnerships can be objective. For instance, can a faculty member receiving funds from a company producing products that degrade water quality criticize the company in public — or will the faculty member be asked to temper her responses?

A related issue inhibiting partnerships is what academia regards as the scientific myopia of industry scientists and their often single-minded quest to commercialize. Many academics view that they themselves are chasing knowledge while industry chases profits.

That point of view is encapsulated by the late Charles Vest, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Industry’s nearly total R&D focus on rapidly commercializing products, when combined with growing constraints on support of university research, could devastate our national innovation system,” Vest said in 1995. “It could well leave us without a shared, evolving base of new scientific knowledge and new technology. It could destroy the primary source of tomorrow’s products, jobs, and health.”

From the industry point of view, joint research projects with academics is no picnic. Solutions that could come out of university research and brought to market to improve the human condition languish in peer-reviewed journals. Combined with complicated intellectual property policies, university solutions are often inaccessible to those who can turn the research into commercial products. The words “speed” and “academia” are contradictions for some in industry.

The ground truth is that in order to make up for the loss of federal research dollars, industry and academia will have to find an elusive middle ground that allows for greater collaboration.

Academia will need to better understand the needs of industry. Corporations want to invest in ways that align with their business interests, and because of this universities need to think differently about how they engage with dynamic business strategies.

For companies, they will have to accommodate the discomfort of academic freedom. Industries that recognize early shifting attitudes in the market are at a competitive advantage, and they should welcome the careful and critical analysis that is the hallmark of university research and scholarship, even if it is at odds with their currently offered products and services.

If the walls can be broken down between industry and academia, the two sides need to be more focused in their partnerships in order to better address the world’s most pressing problems. Europe’s Science Business Innovation Board offered a prescription for improving these partnerships. The answer rests in quality over quantity, it said.

“Increasingly, the trend is to narrow the focus on a handful of strategic partnerships that aim higher, receive significantly greater funding and last longer. These partnerships increasingly will drive richer benefits to fewer universities,” a recent Board report found.

“Long-term strategic partnerships focus the university’s creativity and talent on enabling future innovations that can be taken to market by industry and deliver benefits to society within five to 10 years,” it said.

An example of just such a partnership is something we are engaged in at the University of Minnesota. Called the Minnesota Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy, or MNDRIVE, it is a strategic relationship between the entrepreneurial university, business and industry partners and government entities.

MNDRIVE focuses transdisciplinary academic industry partnerships in the areas of: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; discoveries and treatments for brain conditions and conserving the environment.

One such example is the use of a partnership between engineers, microbiologists, soil and water scientists and industry to employ cost-effective, “green” solutions using microorganisms to clean up contaminated land and water.

But let’s face hard facts — as long as faculty values are in apparent contradiction to the goals of industry, and as long as industry views academic dissent as a threat and not a strength, the relationship will not change and conflicting pressures will slow the transfer of knowledge for the public good.

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