Corporate Research Funds Put Universities in Bind

FOR the past decade, American universities and corporations have tried to speed technological innovation by joining forces in the lab. But at a time when leading White House and congressional officials are pushing for more industry-university collaboration, a new Carnegie Mellon University report strikes a cautionary note.

Such initiatives are already growing rapidly, the report says. They are causing universities to give industry a larger hand in the direction of research and weakening academics' commitment to the free flow of information.

``Universities are finding themselves in a difficult bind,'' says Richard Florida, coauthor of the report and director of the university's Center for Economic Development. ``This is the price universities are willing to pay'' in order to make up for dwindling state and federal support. Professor Florida summarized the report's findings at last week's conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

By the beginning of the decade, the study estimates, more than 1,000 university-industry cooperative research centers had been set up on more than 200 United States campuses. About 58 percent had been created during the 1980s. In 1990, these centers spent an estimated $4.3 billion on research and related activities and involved 12,000 faculty, as well as nearly one in six of the nation's doctoral scientists and engineers.

It is hard to tell how much bang US corporations got for their university buck. The cooperative centers published about as many papers in 1990 as industrial labs did but far fewer patents.

``There's tremendous diversity in this population of centers,'' cautions Wesley Cohen, the report's other coauthor and a professor of economics and social science at Carnegie Mellon. Some centers, dedicated to basic research, are less likely to produce patents than those labs dedicated to creating products. So ``it's a little unfair to paint them all with the same brush.''

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