Why our research ties need no longer bind us

February 18, 2000

Universities must improve research partnerships. Huntington Williams believes the internet holds the key

The university is divided between traditional teaching and its research mission. As a teaching institution, each university is like a Noah's Ark, with a handful of specialists in each field who transmit inherited knowledge to the next generation. As a research institution, the university is a "holding company" for scholarentrepreneurs whose primary loyalty is to their discipline. And disciplines, as we know, are organised by societies.

This dual mission poses a problem for universities trying to form effective research partnerships. One new approach is to view research partnerships as "societies of universities".

In the United States, research partnerships typically take one of two forms: university-industry partnerships, which are a mating of competitive and pre-competitive research (that is research that has not yet resulted in intellectual property); and, university-university partnerships, which are normally pre-competitive.

University-industry partnerships have their own dynamics and rules of conduct. Within the university, there is the tension between the institutional obligation to preserve the independence of "basic research" and the institutional desire to increase the research budget. Both increase the social relevance of the university. In the US, one of the engines of economic growth has been the steady flow of commercial inventions and new markets from basic research conducted at universities.

The US is lucky. Our problems are dilemmas like: is it ethical for a professor with a joint appointment at two institutions to use the more relaxed technology transfer rules of one to negotiate her licensing deal, instead of the rules of the other, which are less personally rewarding? The answer is: probably not, but the fact that a market-based personal incentive is available is a factor in the speed and success of the university-industry partnership.

For better or worse, market-based incentives have become a model of economic development globally, from Silicon Valley in California to Silicon Alley in New York City to Silicon Glen in Scotland.

The value of university-university partnerships tends to get lost in the buzz of the wealth-creation machine, but its value is immense. The reason is simple. Unlike market-driven research, which operates within the profit-and-loss objectives of a corporation, the university supports research that is outside the box.

The risk for universities in current research partnerships is that new technology companies are luring their best and brightest minds. Research universities must recruit new talent to compensate for the loss. Here again, the US has borrowed from the rest of the world to make up the difference. But the lesson is clear: do not eat your seed corn. A robust university sector is needed for indigenous wealth creation.

In the past ten years, the university sector has made a massive investment in internet infrastructure, but the research process itself has not gained that much. For researchers who are already collaborating, the ubiquity of fax and email represents a change in degree, not in kind, over overseas letters and word-of-mouth.

Universities need to make an investment in workflow and knowledge management to take full advantage of the internet's capabilities for research partnerships and provide for a structured interaction between individuals.

Universities are still at an early stage in this process, but it is clear that no university will be able to do it alone. The Association of Commonwealth Universities, in partnership with Community of Science, is providing a solution by mapping the members of the Commonwealth research community in a single, validated, internet-based system; classifying people according to their institutional role in the research process; and developing tools for collaboration that permit the players to manage workflow and collaborate in real time across the boundaries of geography and discipline.

At the moment, the internet is only able to handle applications for pre-competitive, university-university research. Inter-institutional authentication is required to provide firewall-level security to internet transactions involving intellectual property and commercial research.

But this problem will soon be solved, and universities will become internet collaborators for research partnerships in the fullest sense. The internet will transform the institutional boundaries of the research process just as online curricula are transforming the process of teaching today.

Huntington Williams III is president of the Community of Science, the network of scientists and research organisations on the worldwide web.

Details can be found at http://www.cos.com/

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