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Science Watch

Counsel for Industry, Science's Awkward Relationship

April 06, 1998|LEE DYE

The relationship between academic research and industry has always been a tricky one.

Governing bodies that set the course for our universities see their primary task as ensuring the quality of education for undergraduates, not funding research that will benefit one segment of society--private industry. And corporate leaders are reluctant to finance basic research unless they can see profit for their shareholders down the road.

Thus the responsibility for funding academic research has fallen mainly to the federal government, despite the fact that industry frequently turns out to be the chief beneficiary.

In the not-too-distant past, science had a minor role in stimulating economic growth. But the rapid pace of technological development has changed that, and industry and academia now find themselves as strange bedfellows.

It's an awkward relationship because academic researchers must share their findings with their community through peer-reviewed journals, thus making much of their work freely available to industry. Yet industry contributes relatively little funding to academic researchers, and that bothers a lot of university administrators.

So some of the nation's top science policy wonks are hitting the road these days, asking everybody to step back and take a look at the big picture. The current system may be untidy, but it works, and cooperation between industry and academia should be strengthened, not weakened.

"We need to keep our focus on innovation," National Science Foundation President Neal Lane told academic researchers and industrial leaders at a recent meeting in Tempe, Ariz., organized by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. "That's been the driver of economic progress."

Hold on a minute. Science is driving industry? White-coated nerds fussing around in their labs are fueling the economic future of the country?

In a word, yes.

Science is generally perceived as above the economic fray, conducted for the sole purpose of increasing our understanding of the world around us. A good basic researcher is not supposed to be concerned about where the work will lead.

But that, according to Michael M. Crow, vice provost of Columbia University and professor of science policy, is "a bunch of garbage."

In the real world, it doesn't work like that. Most researchers do pay attention to the possible results of their work--whether it will be of any use to anybody--and he sees nothing wrong with academic research finding its way into the industrial sector.

Crow, who also spoke at the conference at Arizona State University, says a "fundamental transformation" has taken place in our society that has forever altered the role of science.

"Let's look back 100 years," he said. "In 1897, the fastest-growing businesses in the United States were electrification and [the manufacturing of] clocks, firearms, machine tools, hardware, agricultural implements, steel.

"Of these, virtually none were driven by the immediate events of science," he said.

Some, such as "electrification," built upon the accumulation of knowledge, but "most were not based on science," he said.

But the 10 fastest-growing industries today, he said, are all "the products of scientific discovery." That includes microelectronics, biotechnology, materials science, telecommunications, computer-controlled tools and robots, civilian aircraft manufacturing and computers.

National Science Foundation studies show that industry supplies about 60% of the research dollars spent in this country, mostly to refine their own products. The raw, basic, academic research is financed primarily by taxpayers, and it is that work that fuels the growth of high-tech companies, Crow said.

Nearly three out of every four research papers published in this country come from the academic world, Crow added, and those papers are consistently cited by companies seeking licenses and patents.

"Half of the knowledge going into industry, half of everything they cite, half of everything they do, is based at least in part on academic science," he said. "What that means is the academic scientific community is driving this engine of economic advance. It is driving these industries forward."

That dependence will grow even more in the coming years, Crow said. Looking 30 years down the road, he sees nanotechnology ("tiny, tiny little machines"), bioelectronics, artificial intelligence, information management and protecting the environment as the major players.

"These will be even more driven by fundamental discoveries and research than anything that has gone on in the past," he said.

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Lane, who is expected to become the next science advisor to President Clinton, told conference attendees that continued success on the economic front will depend largely upon the interdependence of industry and academic research.

"We are simply going to have to learn how to work more together than separately," Lane said. "We need to focus on partnerships [between industry and academia.]"

But in some quarters, at least, that will be a tough sell.

Regents at Arizona State University, for example, have been slow to commit that university to an aggressive research program since the University of Arizona is already a major research institution. Some concerns have centered precisely on the question of how much the state should contribute to private industry through academic research.

Although the intent of the Arizona meeting was to show the economic benefits of cooperation, some ASU officials feared that it would underscore regent concerns that if industry wants research done, it should do it itself.

"I think this meeting set us back 40 years," one ASU official lamented after the conference.

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Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at leedye@compuserve.com

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