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Research and Science Education Subcommittee Discusses Business-Research University Partnerships

Aline D. McNaull
Number 113 - August 30, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“Collaboration between business and academia helps fuel research necessary for American innovation and helps prepare a workforce that meets the needs of industry.  Both are critical components to future economic prosperity and job growth.” – Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL)

During the August 1 hearing of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Members heard from the business community about their partnerships and collaborations with research universities.  Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) explained that “the path from the lab bench to innovation and job creation depends on a complicated network of private companies, scientists, universities, venture capitalists, startups, and entrepreneurs,” as he advocated that even in these tight budget times, the US “must sustain our investments in scientific research, which means sustaining our investments in our world-class research universities.” 

Brooks expressed an interest in learning about the benefits that these collaborations bring to stakeholders and students, how partnerships take shape and evolve, and how they can be strengthened.  Lipinski invited witnesses to address peer-to-peer relationships within collaborations and the role of the National Science Foundation and other federal science agencies in facilitating and contributing to university-industry partnerships.  Lipinski seemed to speak for both sides of the aisle as he expressed his interest in promoting “the creation of innovation ecosystems within which universities, businesses, research institutes, and other stakeholders build and sustain long-term and mutually beneficial collaborations.” 

A hearing charter prepared by Republican committee staff states that “US businesses and industry have moved away from conducting fundamental, or basic, scientific research and development in-house.  This shift has led to a greater reliance on the Nation’s research universities for this research and to provide the backbone for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce essential for U.S. prosperity.”  According to the National Academies report, Research Universities and the Future of America, this shift from large industrial labs has led to a growth in university-performed research and industry-funded university research and has allowed for the creation of “new strategies for obtaining the productive knowledge that allows for the innovation and development of new processes and products.”         

William Green, Executive Chairman of Accenture, assured Committee Members that “global competitiveness is the key CEO issue, and having the talent to compete is what keeps CEOs up at night.  The companies – and the countries – with the best talent win.”  His testimony focused on the need for talent, research, and innovation since he believes “our national research universities are our secret weapon.”

Ray Johnson, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation expressed the need for the US to pursue game-changing inventions rather than evolutionary improvements.  He discussed the talent acquisition process stating that Lockheed had developed relationships with over 100 US colleges and universities and with faculty, staff, and student groups.  He pointed out that Lockheed seeks out partnerships with universities that are known for their academic excellence and diversity and that this affects the pipeline of job applicants upon graduation from these academic institutions. 

The need to aggressively reduce costs in this economic reality has led to increased pressure on research funding, explained Johnson.  Regarding potential areas for improvement, he stated “there is also a perception that university research agreements are exceptionally difficult to negotiate, specifically in regards to intellectual property or IP rights…. Universities sometimes refuse to grant IP rights to industry.”  Lastly, Johnson advocated for the permanent research and development tax credit.

John Hickman, Director of Global University Relations and Life Sciences at Deere and Company, explained how Deere is involved with curriculum review and classroom outreach.  He described the Global University Relations initiative and provided an overview of the variety of research projects and also stated that “industry plays an important role in advising universities as to the relevance of research and workforce programs in addressing current and future business needs.”  He further explained that businesses can be involved in organizations that focus on opportunities for partnerships such as the University Industry Demonstration Partnership and the Government University Industry Research Roundtable.   

Hickman highlighted that Deere is trying to negotiate a Master Research Agreement with universities where Deere expects to have significant research activities.  This Agreement will address issues including intellectual property, publication, and confidentiality thus simplifying and standardizing the process of establishing each new research project with that university.  Hickman also addressed the need for the federal research and development tax credit as well as the retention of high-skilled workers, including those trained at US research universities. 

Lou Graziano, Director of University Research and Development Strategy, Sustainable Technologies and Innovation Sourcing at the Dow Chemical Company, began by stating the desired outcomes from Dow’s investment in strategic academic partners: to enable “the discovery of advanced technologies that are relevant to the industrial and societal problems;” to ensure “that our institutions of higher learning remain strong in the disciplines that are essential to a healthy, sustainably advantaged manufacturing sector;” and to provide “new avenues of support to our partners , ensuring that they benefit not just from the funding we provide, but from the collaboration of scientific minds and the advanced knowledge we bring to the table with respect to other important issues such as safety, sustainability and intellectual property protection.”

Graziano also stated that intellectual property and maintaining the focus of research at universities are challenges faced by Dow in their partnerships.  He also emphasized that there is a need for university-business peer-to-peer relationship wherein both industry and academia are equally communicating their needs.  Lastly, he emphasized the need to retain foreign graduate students trained in the US. 

Jilda Garton, Vice President for Research and General Manager of the Georgia Tech Research Corporation highlighted two programs in her testimony.  The Georgia Tech Integrated Program for Start-ups is a streamlined licensing program and the FlashPoint Program builds on startup methodologies and provides professional development for entrepreneurs.  She emphasized a need for predictability and stability to the research enterprise as she described challenges faced by Georgia Tech in university-business partnerships; those challenges include limited resources, increased regulations, and extensive reporting requirements. 

During the questioning period, Lipinski and Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI) inquired about details of the partnerships; Benishek focused his questions on how community colleges can become more involved in the partnerships while Lipinski was interested in learning details about how partnerships form.  Witnesses described the process of matching up the research performed at universities with the interests of industry.  Both members also asked about federal funding.  Lipinski was interested in understanding the effect of the profound role of federal funding whereas Benishek was interested in what parameters should be put on research and development funding. 

Brooks emphasized the record setting national deficits as he made a statement on the rise in funding for research expenditures; he was interested in learning strategic ways to promote research and development funding.  He also welcomed input from witnesses about their views on overly-burdensome regulations that hinder partnerships. 

Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) questioned how to make it easier to license technology that is produced based on university research.  The witnesses answers included the need for better licensing and intellectual property agreements.  Clarke was also interested in learning how to leverage the resources of an industrial city, such as Detroit, in engaging these partnerships in order to boost economic growth.    

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) advocated for improving communication options as he stated “when budgets are tight, it opens up an opportunity for us and that opportunity is to communicate like we’ve never communicated before.”  He was especially interested in hearing how the interaction between businesses, corporations and research universities can also include partnerships and interaction with national research laboratories.  Witnesses suggested that there be a focus on small and medium business enterprises as well as community colleges in the discussions about improving business-university partnerships.  Because the partners do not always have all the necessary resources at their disposal, co-funded projects that include funding from private industry and the government provide significant opportunity to bring the partners together, witnesses explained.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
amcnaull@aip.org
301-209-3094