The State of Science

members of the Science Coalition sit in rows of long tables at meeting
September 20, 2010

By Danny Freedman

Research chiefs from some of the nation’s top universities gathered Friday with journalists for a far-reaching forum on the role of research universities, the changing landscape in which they operate and the challenges they may face in the near future.

Among the 10 participants—which included GW’s Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa and his contemporaries at Brown University, Princeton University and elsewhere—several noted that research universities have grown to become an integral piece of communities of every scale, from boosting local economies to offering expertise globally, and are an increasingly important cog in wheel of innovation.

Part of that has come from expanded opportunities for university scientists to collaborate with private industries and to become entrepreneurs in their own right, pushing their breakthroughs out into the world.

“There’s been a real change in the last, say, two decades about how this issue is viewed,” Dr. Chalupa told the panel, organized at the National Press Club by the non-profit Science Coalition. Whereas administrators once bristled at the notion, now faculty are strongly encouraged “to develop companies, to get licenses, to get royalties,” he said. “It’s a win for society, it’s a win for the university and it’s a win for the individual.”

He said that companies have become “much more aggressive” in approaching promising researchers—pointing out that recent work by chemistry professor Stuart Licht that was published online had generated collaboration offers from three northern Virginia start-ups.

A burgeoning trend noted by others is that these collaborations—sought out both by the universities and by the private sector—are beginning to be struck earlier in the research process.

In response to a journalist’s question about how these partnerships are shielded from conflicts-of-interest or from becoming otherwise problematic, the university officials said it’s an aspect that they need to pay careful attention to.

“The reason we do much of the research we do is to move products to the marketplace … and that can only happen through partnerships; it can’t happen on our own,” said David Wynes, vice president for research administration at Emory University. “So I think it’s a matter of making sure that those partnerships are properly structured and that’s part of the role of all of us in this room.”

“There are a lot of things where we need to get the expectations right, about what is the company getting out of this, what is the university getting out of this, what has to be protected because it’s federal money,” said Michael S. Witherell, vice chancellor for research at University of California, Santa Barbara. “For example, one of the things that we have to get across is that our graduate students need to be able to publish their results, and that’s something that we cannot back down on.”

The tough economic times—which for researchers, to some extent, have been buoyed by money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—also was a ripe topic.

“I think the big gorilla in the room is the end of the stimulus money that we’re all going to be facing,” said Dr. Chalupa.

GW so far has won nearly $42 million from this pool, he said, including $15 million to renovate the Medical Center’s Ross Hall to accommodate a new Research Center for the Neglected Diseases of Poverty. But the university, like other institutions, faces some uncertainty about the impending time when stimulus grants are no longer available.

“When the money ends,” he said, “the question is: what happens next?”

(After the forum, Dr. Chalupa said he anticipates the void for GW will be filled by growth in other areas, including an expected “boom in funding” stemming from new faculty hires in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, along with fundraising efforts and a current, steep increase in the number of grants faculty have applied for.)

Of the economy, Francine Berman, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., told the group: “It has never, ever been a time where we had to do so much with, essentially, so little.”

But these difficulties, she said, are not without a silver lining.

“I think it has really, in some sense, incentivized us to do even more with shared resources,” both within a university and in partnerships with the private sector and the government. “I think there’s all kinds of grace in which it’s really sort of forced us to come together more than we ever have before.”

For A.J. Stewart Smith, dean for research at Princeton University, there also was concern that tightening budgets could cause universities take fewer risks in research.

Breakthroughs are “often completely unexpected, and by definition it’s a risky business,” he said. “As times are tough, I think we all have to work to make sure that we don’t miss opportunities for very bright young people to do great things.”

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