The Downside of Capitalism on Campus
IS it time to close the book on cold fusion? Most news media have had enough of the story. While some legitimate breakthrough may yet come from the experiments still under way, any new reports of room-temperature fusion will require solid evidence before they see the light of day. Still, it seems there's another chapter to the developments in Utah. It's a tale of politics and economics in academic research.Skip to next paragraph
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The story begins in Utah - an unlikely place to look for leadership in science. The state has a weak educational base. With the nation's leading birthrate and a faltering natural-resource economy, Utah ranks last in per capita expenditures for K-12 schools and 40th for higher education.
On the other hand, Utah is a land of vision. The Mormons, who settled the state in the 19th century, and who continue to dominate its politics and culture, are bold and adventurous people.
Thus it's no accident that when American universities began venturing into commercial research, Utah was near the forefront. The University of Utah established a research park back in 1972. It was one of the first 10 in the country.
Until recently, Utah's best-known research has been in biomedics. Dr. William DeVries made headlines in 1982 when he implanted a Jarvik-7 heart in the chest of a dying dentist, Barney Clark. Mr. Clark lived less than three months with the new heart, and DeVries was lured off to another enterprise in Kentucky. But a precedent was set. Even with a flimsy educational foundation, Utah proved it could compete.
Chase Peterson, president of the University of Utah, is one of the nation's leading advocates of ``academic capitalism'' - the philosophy of commercializing research. Supporters of this view believe that the old ivory-tower university is pass'e. They think that professors and students benefit from exposure to current technology and real-world industry.
Business, of course, profits as well. Modern industry needs an abundant, affordable source of basic research, and universities fill the bill. As research-park specialist Steve Gomes puts it, ``The university is the factory of the future.''
But the events of the last few months in Utah have shown another side of academic capitalism: What happens when the process moves too far, too fast.
B.Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, University of Utah electrochemists, spent five years and much of Mr. Pons' money on a wonderfully imaginative idea. The notion that hydrogen atoms could be made to fuse and give off energy at room temperature was the very kind of fillip that has sparked scientific breakthroughs.
Cold fusion was an idea to pursue at leisure, just as the scientists were doing. Their problems came from publicizing their work prematurely, at the instigation of the University of Utah's patent attorneys. The lawyers were afraid of losing patent rights. The experience highlights the hazards of patent attorneys orchestrating the flow of scientific information, and the fine line in academia between pursuing knowledge and making money. That's the downside of academic capitalism: The line is getting thinner all the time.
The presence of patent attorneys in higher education is growing at an astounding rate. According to Change Magazine, a journal of higher education, membership in the American Society of University Patent Administrators increased seven-fold during a recent 15-year period, from 70 to 500.
Meanwhile, between 1976 and 1987, America's university research parks increased seven-fold, from 12 to 84. During the same period state government per capita funding for higher education decreased from 97 cents to 92 cents. Medicaid spending jumped from 35 cents to 58 cents; prisons from 19 cents to 33 cents.
That's the story from Utah. Not that cold fusion is folly, or that academic capitalism is wrong. Perhaps we need more knowledge factories and fewer ivory towers. The bottom line is that colleges may be selling research for the wrong reasons, for funding-by-default. If so, that's false economy. If research is reduced to marketplace dimensions, we'll miss truths that may be found in unconventional ideas. We'll lose the innovative edge our future requires.