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University research and corporations look to each other

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2001

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) -- Some have described the intellectual talent bottled up at University of California, Santa Barbara, as the county's last untapped resource.

The potential is staggering. Even over its relatively young life as a university, the school has been the incubator of dozens of local businesses employing thousands of people.

As the university enters into more and more relationships with private companies and spins off new businesses, the economic reverberations will likely be felt not just throughout the county, but throughout the state. Yet even more important for the school, these new relationships raise questions about the proper balance between a public university and private enterprise.

How is UC-Santa Barbara -- ranked among the nation's top public research universities -- protecting the institution's ideals, while it dives into this new entrepreneurial era?

In Tokyo three weeks ago, Chancellor Henry T. Yang, engineering dean Matt Tirrell and four of the school's top scientists met with executives of the Mitsubishi Chemical Corp.

Company executives and university administrators had just signed an agreement in which Mitsubishi Chemical committed $15 million to the school to support groundbreaking research in materials science and solid state lighting.

The agreement is the largest sponsored research by a corporation in UC-Santa Barbara's history.

In exchange for the five-year commitment of money, Mitsubishi Chemical gets first crack at exclusive licensing of any discoveries made by researchers at the school's new Mitsubishi Chemical Center for Advance Materials.

And Mitsubishi gets ready access to the revolutionary research being done by a team of UC-Santa Barbara scientists who are on the road to replacing incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs with super-efficient light emitting diodes. One of them, professor Shuji Nakamura, who was wooed away from a private Japanese company last year, has been called the Thomas Edison of Japan.

''It's going to be a real partnership in the sense that we're going to sit down with them and go over ideas,'' said Glenn Fredrickson, the chairman of UC-Santa Barbara's chemical engineering department. ''Every project we fund will have specific goals in mind in terms of technology.''

For decades universities have turned to the federal government for research money, but increasingly campuses are getting cash from businesses eager for a technical edge on their competitors or just trolling for the next big breakthrough.

Over the last decade top administrators with the University of California system have taken up a new mantle, urging their campuses to become more ''entrepreneurial'' by forming partnerships with private industries, encouraging faculty members to spin off companies of their own, and fostering the transfer of new university discoveries to businesses for development.

UC administrators want their nine campuses to mimic what has occurred at top private research institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which have become sources not just of new knowledge but also of new wealth.

''To me the university has an obligation to drive industry,'' said electrical and computer engineering professor John Bowers, who has started three successful companies and is on a leave of absence working at another.

''The pace of negotiations with industry, and the amounts of money under discussion, have increased significantly, especially in engineering and the physical and life sciences,'' said France Cordova, an astrophysicist and former NASA chief scientist who is now UC-Santa Barbara's vice chancellor for research.

''We're not heading into these partnerships with just the goal of increasing our research funding, though,'' Cordova said. ''Our main purpose at the university remains educating and training students, and generating new knowledge.''

But more than just sitting down with companies like Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM to negotiate new relationships, public universities are jumping head first into the world of private enterprise.

Currently money from private sources makes up just 14 percent of the $113 million research budget at the school. The bulk of the money comes from federal sources, more than 70 percent of the total last year.

But money from industry is growing at a much faster pace than federal sources, jumping by 200 percent in the past decade, according to the school's research office.

While partnering with industry is being applauded by many within the UC system, others are concerned by potential pitfalls.

''There's a fundamental question about how this will impact research and education,'' said Chris Newfield, an English professor who has finished a book about corporate relationships with public universities.

Newfield wonders if such things as cures for crop pests plaguing countries in Africa will be studied when there's so much more funding for the development of pharmaceuticals.

''There may be a shift in the balance of intellectual power at the school,'' Newfield said. But he notes that science and engineering have always ruled.

Although he has no fundamental problem with the increase in corporate support for academic research, Newfield believes the school still needs to be cautious.

''I think the university should be a place where you can think anything, and where creativity and breakthrough knowledge come before everything,'' he said. ''That kind of a space requires some protection.''

Hu contends that protection already exists.

''We have to be entrepreneurial, but that does not mean that industry is going to dictate the agenda for universities,'' she said. ''The education of students and the importance of getting them through the degree program can't be subsumed through these interactions.''



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