Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth

The pressure to be economically relevant is more injurious than implied here, says Graham Farmelo

March 12, 2009

Ernest Rutherford, perhaps the greatest experimentalist of the past century, was adamant that universities should concentrate solely on fundamental science. In October 19, he thundered to an audience at the University of Bristol: "I should view as an unmitigated disaster the utilisation of our university laboratories mainly for research bearing on industry." Industrialists, he believed, should be kept at arm's length, unless there was no-strings cash in their pockets.

How quaint Rutherford's views now seem. For most universities today, it is a fact of life that they have to co-operate closely with industry and be "economically relevant". In Tapping the Riches of Science, Roger Geiger and Creso Sa (of the universities of Pennsylvania State and Toronto, respectively) give a thorough review of the impact of the recent move towards more economic relevance in universities in the US. Their analysis, measured and meticulous, has much to inform university policymakers in other countries too, especially the UK.

For Geiger and Sa, the 1980s were crucial in the modern history of American universities, because these years saw the establishment by almost every one of these institutions of a technology transfer office to handle intellectual property rights. From the late 1970s to the end of the 20th century, industrial funding of university research quadrupled to about $2 billion (measured in dollars valued at the turn of the millennium). On most campuses, to be disdainful of the new commercialism was to be viewed as old-fashioned; thousands of administrative careers have been based on an uncritical espousal of the brave new world of enterprise-driven research.

The universities have quite obviously taken this new direction as part of their combined pursuit of prestige and resources. Geiger and Sa set out to examine how well the strategy has worked, by examining the effectiveness of, for example, technology transfer offices all over the US. They point out that, by 2005, the Association of University Technology Managers could report that American universities were responsible for almost 3,000 operating start-up firms and $1 billion (£700 million) worth of licensing revenues. Although this is small beer in a $12 trillion economy, these initiatives often make quite a splash in their local economies, which is why many of them are lavishly supported by state authorities and by federal government, through pork-barrel funding.

There has been huge pressure on US universities to do their bit for the economy by working with industry to produce research-based innovations in areas of advanced technology and high potential growth, such as biotechnology and drug development. In a rare rhetorical flourish, the authors describe this as the most welcome mandate higher education has had "since the post-sputnik science race with the Soviets".

It would be reasonable to conclude from the increasing popularity of these new research priorities that they have comprehensively proved their worth. But no. Geiger and Sa make a convincing case that, beneath the hype, the productivity of technology transfer offices has been, for the most part, poor. It has proved difficult to make serious money out of academic research and it does not seem to be getting any easier. The authors summarise the profitability of technology transfer projects across the country in a classic throwaway line: "The most effective vehicle for technology transfer is still the moving van."

Some purists bewail the influence of the new commercial priorities on university life; for example the tendency of hiring committees to value entrepreneurial flair above intellectual heft, and the recurring conflicts between economic realities and an unswerving commitment to truth and honesty. But Geiger and Sa argue that these and other objections are exaggerated: the bedrock norms to which all respectable academic institutions subscribe - commitment to disinterested inquiry, openness, scholarship and teaching - still apply. Economic relevance is, they point out, central to the mission of only a very few institutions in the US, notably Georgia Tech and North Carolina State.

My experience, however, is that pressure to be economically relevant is rather more pernicious than one might gather from Tapping the Riches. In the UK, there are disturbing signs that the Government is keen on promoting research that promises to be profitable at the expense of curiosity-driven inquiry. This tendency may well increase in these desperately tough times for the economy. Yet surely no one would seriously support Rutherford's belief that industrial research should be undertaken only "by manufacturers or the Government in special laboratories". Geiger and Sa's pragmatic conclusion is that "for now, universities and technology-based economic development seem inextricably linked".

For the economy to thrive in the long term, however, it is essential that blue-skies research is supported. "Applied science makes improvements, pure science makes revolutions" - that was a favourite phrase of Rutherford's University of Cambridge colleague J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the electron. Industry invested next to nothing in his research but has been, over the past century, very efficient at tapping its riches.

Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth

By Roger L. Geiger and Creso M. Sa

Harvard University Press

262pp, £29.95

ISBN 9780674031289

Published 29 January 2009

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