December 10, 2007
President of RIT urges new approach to research partnerships between corporations and universities
A new kind of research partnership between research universities and major corporations can help the nation strengthen its flagging leadership in research and development, the president of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has argued in a new paper.
In particular, universities must relent on their traditional demands for intellectual-property rights associated with research sponsored by corporations, Bill Destler wrote in "A New Relationship Between Business and Academia," a November paper published on his Web site.
"America's leadership in new product and service development is in jeopardy," Destler wrote.
He argued that "competitive cost-cutting" is to blame for a weakening of the nation's leadership in developing new products and services. He cited the elimination or weakening of once-leading corporate research and development labs, noting that foreign corporate R&D labs have gained ground on their American counterparts.
U.S. universities, which "are still without question the finest in the world," can help the nation address this problem, he adds.
"They possess a reservoir of intellectual talent and creativity unmatched anywhere else," Destler said. "American graduate students are still the most cost-effective R&D labor force anywhere. In addition, many colleges and universities have laboratory assets that would be prohibitively expensive for most companies to reproduce."
But U.S. businesses have been reluctant to view these higher education institutions corporate R&D centers—and both business and academia share in the blame for this, Destler added.
He faulted universities for unreasonable intellectual property demands in negotiations with potential corporate research partners.
"Universities [have demanded] intellectual property rights and subsequent royalty payments from the corporate sector with such vigor that lawyers terminate many projects before they even begin," he says. "It is time for U.S. colleges and universities to remember that they are tax-exempt, non-profit organizations whose primary role is to serve society, not to make money.
He also noted that university researchers tend to seek support for research on their own ideas, not the ideas of others, and tend to work on longer-term research than corporations can accept, " especially when they are under competitive pressure from abroad."
He faulted corporations for focusing too narrowly in near-term financial results.
"It's amazing to me to still hear people question Toyota's multi-year, billion dollar commitment to hybrid vehicle development, a commitment U.S. auto companies were unwilling to make because of the long lead-time that was necessary before any profits could be realized," Destler says.
He also said corporations spend too much on acquisitions and mergers, incurring "untold billions in legal costs without adding any really new intellectual assets to the U.S. inventory. These funds could be used to fund technology R&D."
And he said corporations are unreasonable in their traditional unwillingness to help support overhead costs at their research partner institutions.,
In Destler's recommended approach to research collaborations, higher education institutions would accept a modest up-front payment in lieu of all intellectual-property rights, sidestepping "the usual intellectual property fights that usually derail such efforts."
"Let's get on with it," Destler concluded "Our future economic prosperity may well depend on our success in exploiting one of our last competitive advantages – America's institutions of higher education and the extraordinary research and development assets that they represent."