Like most sciency individuals who graduated from the university/research complex in the US, I planned on a life of doing science. And I did for a few years as a post-doc and assistant prof. But eventually I left academia for the industrial side of the scientific enterprise. There was a period of getting oriented to the commercial arena of chemical technology. But, after seeing the boost in pay, the abundance of lab equipment and the prospects for travel, I quickly adapted.

In industry, scientists are hired to solve problems. And there are usually problems galore. But unlike academia where the entire spectrum of chemical methodologies are available for use, in industry we are often constrained to use in-house technology and standard operating procedures. This in-house technology can consist of proprietary materials and methods, specific substances that are compatible with environmental, health, & safety requirements (OSHA & EPA), or that reaction chemistry which is suitable for scale-up. Suitability can be based on compatibility with materials of construction or the practical operational constraints of existing equipment. Oh, I forgot to mention process safety. Manufacturing at large scale brings safety problems that academics may have little familiarity with.

In-house technology can be broad or narrow in scope. It can be practiced openly in the public domain, reside under just trade secrecy, or under patent protection and a spritz of trade secrecy. Progress in academia is about sharing knowledge and publishing as a measure of productivity, all the while educating students. In industry, the productivity of a scientist is measured as best profit margins on new or old products and technical service to customers. Whereas, an academic is expected to propagate knowledge, we in industry are obligated to keep everything under wraps. Disclosure can be a career ending mistake. This seems like an oil and water compatibility problem.

The differing imperatives, commercial secrecy vs public domain, make the cooperation between industry and academia fraught with difficulties. What is in it for an academic or grad student if they are not able to get a publication out of their labors? A big grant possibly but few publications to show the rank and tenure committee. Will patents get you tenure or a full professorship? I don’t know. Would students be able to use proprietary information in their dissertation? It’s questionable. The matter of proprietary information, inventorship, and assignment of ownership makes cooperation between industry and academia a complex problem for the lawyers.

I live under a rock but perhaps the readers might know of fruitful alliances in the lab between the two chemistry domains- college chemistry faculty and industry. I suppose in circumstances where a company has been started by a professor, productive alliance could happen more easily.