Industry is taking a renewed interest in college research
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
* 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.