Industry is taking a renewed interest in college research

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For a wide mix of reasons, ranging from federal tax incentives to recruitment concerns. US industry is sharply stepping up its investment in university research.

This closer campus-business link, impelled by a growing awareness of the distinct advantages to both sides, is taking a variety of forms:

* Top attention-getter is the multimillion- dollar one-on-one arrangement. Examples include the $6 million five-year agreement in genetic research announced last month between Du Pont and Harvard University Medical School, the ongoing 12-year contract between Monsanto and Harvard for $23 million to probe the biological origin of organs, and the 10-year agreement for $7 million to $8 million signed last year between the Exxon Research and Engineering Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to explore more efficient and cleaner ways to burn fossil fuels such as high sulfur coal.

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* Other contracts such as the on supporting the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which is trying to develop more sophisticated industrial robot systems, draw funds from a number of different companies. Westinghouse Corporation is the key supporter in a joint program with a specific practical purpose, but many other companies are partial sponsors in supporting generic research.

* Some industry-university research efforts are even more generic. Cases in point: the Council for Chemical Research, a joint effort of industrial and academic chemists to increase funding for research by acting as a broker, and the American Council on Education's Business-Higher Education Forum, involving 30 university presidents and 31 corporation presidents in joint exploration of such topics as energy research and manpower needs.

To a degree, industry is reforging an old tie. IT was the chief supporter of campus research until the federal government, eager to beef up the nation's defense capability by developing new technology, largely replaced it during World War II. Even with the Reagan administration's budget cuts, expected to affect the social sciences more than the hard sciences. Washington will remain by far the main supporter of university research and virtually the sole supporter of basic research.

But industry's small share -- an estimated 2 to 4 percent -- in inching up. Though federal dollars outnumber industry dollars for research at MIT, for instance, by more than 10 to 1, George Dummer, director of sponsored research programs, notes that industry's support has been doubling almost every two years recently.

Still, few campus research experts harbor any notion that industry's share will grow by much more than another 5 to 10 percent.

The unpredictability of Washington's role and the desire for a buffer to keep from being too dependent on it are part of what makes the university world more eager than ever to pull in industry research dollars. Such factors as the drop in enrollment, faculty shortages, outdated scientific equipment on many campuses , and the growing interest of students in more practical career training, also serve as prods.

Industry needs technological innovation to stay competitive, sees universities as relatively inexpensive sources of new ideas, and mey net new tax incentives this year for campus donations of equipment and basic research dollars. Also, industry has long looked to the university world as a key source of manpower and is increasingly realizing that it is, as the saying goes, "eating its own seed corn" by siphoning off too many faculty members and new graduates.

The people shortage has been particularly acute in engineering where an estimated 2,000 campus teaching slots are unfilled. Accordinly, eight major companies now fund a cooperative position in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) to find specific answers to the growing manpower problem. Says ASEE executive director Edward Lear, "Faculty and equipment shortages are definitely part of what's bringing colleges and industry closer together."

Over the years industry research funds have been channeled largely into such fields as engineering and the applied sciences. In recent years, however, the ties have grown extremely close and strong in such basic science areas as microelectronics and genetic engineering. Increasingly, too, industry is showing signs of interest in social science research that focuses on the human factor in behavior, motivation, and relationships.

"Industry will support input-output economic analysis and research to resolve energy and environmental conflicts where it has a direct interest," explains Dr. Laurence Berlowitz, provost of Clark University and co- chairman of a background study for the National Science Board on the industry-campus research connection.

Several of the agreements reached in recent years have grown out of a personal relationship among professionals. In the MIT- Exxon agreement in combustion science, for intance, the key faculty member involved is a former employee of several years standing with the Exxon research affiliate.

"There's fairly widespread feeling that the kind of research link that works best and is most productive is one where a strong relationship exists of professionals knowing each other," observes Stanford University vice- president Robert Rosenzweig.

Many of the new industry-campus research ties involve the exchange of faculty and industrial professionals. Joint appointments and joint use of equipment as ways of easing manpower shortages and improving faculty salaries are variations likely to grow. Also expected to spring up are more industrial research parks such as that in Raleigh, N.C., supported by three area universities and a variety of corporate sources.

While academia's traditional suspicion of business and its motives have subsided to a large degree in recent years, there is growing concern that a closer industry-campus research connection carries potential problems with it that universities must watch. Industry's focus on applied research, for instance, raises questions not only about who should reap the financial benefits but about whether the work forces the university into too narrow a policy direction or restricts academic openness.

University of Chicago president Hanna Gray, who says she thinks industry funding of research is sure to grow for a number of reasons, stresses the importance for a university of setting clear guidelines in advance and of providing for a broad continuing policy of review. A key element from the university's standpoint, she says, is that its essential character be preserved by the full sharing of scientific an scholarly findings with the academic community. "We believe all research should be of the nonclassified variety and publishable," she says.

"The whole basis of research in universities is free communications of results," agrees Robert Marston, president of the University of Florida and a man who considers the proposed commercialization of gene splicing as largely responsible for raising the question of what constraints should be put on the industry-campus relationship. "There must be no way to tamper with data or prevent its being made available to other scientists. . . ."

For many campuses, the question of patent rights, royalties, and whether to invest in firms spun off from new academic discoveries are constant worries.

"One worry is that industry will skim the cream off for a small sum of money and benefit disproportionately," notes James McKalvey, dean of the School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. His university recently spun off a for-profit research subsidiary to market activities of the engineering school.

Though several universities have made millions of dollars in royalties from their inventions, the whole area of financial gain remains a touchy one.

For that reason, many new industry-university agreements spell out in meticulous detail the rights of both parties in the event of success. The MIT-Exxon agreement, for instance, specifies that the university can file patents on all technology developed while Exxon and its affiliates get a nonexclusive, royalty-free license for use of all patented technologies. Carnegie-Mellon, on the other hand, declines all interest in patents and awards them to its industrial sponsors. But if those patents are then licensed for a free, the university must get a share of the income.

Despite the technicalities, both industry and universities seem convinced that cooperative research efforts can leave them both stronger.

"The principle is warmly supported," says Washington University's Dean McKalvey.

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