Recently I had the good fortune to get to meet for a consultation with a young and talented chemistry professor (Prof X) from a state university elsewhere in the US. Prof X has an outstanding pedigree and reached tenure rather rapidly at a young age. This young prof has won a very large number of awards already and I think could well rise to the level of a Trost or a Bergman in time.

Not long ago this prof was approached by one of the top chemical companies in the world to collaborate on some applied research. What is interesting about this is that the company has begun to explore outsourcing basic research in the labs of promising academic researchers. I am not aware that this company has done this to such an extent previously.  They do have an impressive corporate research center of their own and the gigabucks to set up shop wherever they want. Why would they want to collaborate like this?

R&D has a component of risk to it. Goals may not be met or may be much more expensive that anticipated.  Over the long term there may be a tangible payoff, but over the short term, it is just overhead.

The boards and officers of public corporations have a fiduciary obligation to maximize the return on investment of their shareholders. They are not chartered to spread their wealth to public institutions. They have a responsibility to minimize their tax liability while maximizing their profitability. Maximizing profit means increasing volume and margins. Increasing margins means getting the best prices at the lowest operating expense possible.

Corporate research is a form of overhead expense. Yes, you can look at it as an investment of resources for the production of profitable goods and services of the future. This is what organic growth is about. But that is not the only way to plan for future growth. Very often it is faster and easier to buy patent portfolios or whole corporations in order to achieve a more prompt growth and increase in market share.

The thing to realize is that this is not a pollenization exercise. The company is not looking to just fertilize research here and there and hope for advances in the field. They are a sort of research squatter that is setting up camp in existing national R&D infrastructure in order to produce return on investment. Academic faculty, students, post-docs, and university infractructure become contract workers who perform R&D for hire.

In this scheme, research groups become isolated in the intellectual environment of the university by the demands of secrecy agreements. Even within groups, there is a silo effect in that a student working on a commercial product or process must be isolated from the group to contain IP from inadvertant disclosure. The matter of inventorship is a serious matter that can get very sticky in a group situation. Confidential notebooks, reports, and theses will be required.  Surrender of IP ownership, long term silence on ones thesis work, and probably secret defense of their thesis will have to occur as well.

While a big cash infusion to Prof X may seem to be a good thing for the professor’s group, let’s consider other practical problems that will develop. The professor will have to allocate labor and time to the needs of the benefactor. The professor will not be able to publish the results of this work, nor will the university website be a place to display such research. In academia, ones progress is measured by the volume and quality of publications. In a real sense, the collaboration will result in work that will be invisible on the professors vitae.

Then there is the matter of IP contamination. If Prof X inadvertantly uses proprietary chemistry for the professor’s own publishable scholarly work, the professor may be subject to civil liability. Indeed, the prof may have to avoid a large swath of chemistry that was previously their own area.

This privatization of the academic research environment is a model contrary to what has been a very successful national R&D complex for generations. Just have a look in Chemical Abstracts. It is full of patent information, to be sure, but it is full of technology and knowledge that is in the public domain. Chemical Abstracts is a catalog and bibliography that organizes our national treasure. Our existing government-university R&D complex has been a very productive system overall and every one of us benefits from it in ways most do not perceive. We should be careful with it.

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