WASHINGTON -- With the possibility of broad budget cuts to discretionary programs, including scientific research, looming from Congressional sequestration early next year, research officers from public and private universities are thinking a lot about the future.
At a roundtable convened by the Science Coalition, an organization of universities dedicated to preserving federal funding for basic research, and the Association of American Universities, the officers discussed the future of pure and applied research -- and where the money will come from to pursue both.
They agreed on the importance of encouraging entrepreneurship, pushing the results of research to the market in the form of a product or patent. But they disagreed on whether applied research -- and the money it brings in -- could replace the federal dollars now provided through the National Science Foundation and other agencies. Many fear that money will dwindle as Congressional concern continues about budget deficits.
The increased focus on entrepreneurship, innovation and technology transfer isn’t distracting colleges from basic research or teaching, the research officers said.
“In my personal opinion, we’re on the right track,” said Robert Duncan, the vice chancellor for research at the University of Missouri at Columbia, who described technology transfer and other forms of applied research as part of state universities’ land-grant mission.
Instead, the research officers said, the increased role of entrepreneurship and technology transfer -- forms of monetizing research and discovery on college campuses -- has been a learning experience for students. Some colleges have allowed students to license their own intellectual property, redirecting some of the money made from the deals back to student activities in entrepreneurship and innovation. In many cases, students have been more enthusiastic than faculty about pursuing such opportunities, said Vicki Colvin, vice provost for research at Rice University.
A younger generation of faculty also don’t see publishing their research, or patenting and marketing the results, as an either/or choice, she added. “The younger faculty have an expectation that you will try to connect to society and try to solve society's problems,” she said.
Colleges have become increasingly focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, not just due to cutbacks in federal funding -- Colvin predicted that in a decade, federal money would make up about one-third of support for university research, down from under 60 percent now and 70 percent at its peak -- but due to concerns about older forms of innovation.
“The era of the blockbuster drug is over,” said A. J. Stewart Smith, dean of research at Princeton University, adding that the rise of genomic medicine and the increasing complexity of ailments researchers focus on means that more drugs are failing to make it out of clinical trials. Still, he cautioned that focusing too much on marketable results could harm the pipeline of basic research.
“We’re not going too far, but we sure don’t want to neglect the long-term stuff,” he said, adding that applied research “does not drive out the pure.” No corporation will pay for the kind of basic physics research that the National Science Foundation, and other agencies, fund, he said.
Stephen Forrest, vice president for research at the University of Michigan, described the difference between pure research and applied research with a banking metaphor. Pure research is “money in the bank,” he said, the “pipeline” that leads to new discoveries in applied research.
“The pipeline has to be stuffed with ideas, most of them failures,” he said. “The biggest threat to this company today, an economic threat, is not having a full pipeline.”
Still, most acknowledged that only a small percentage of faculty will be interested in aggressively pursuing technology transfer, and that many will never see themselves as entrepreneurs or start new companies to promote their ideas.
And that’s fine, said Duncan, from Missouri, adding that in many cases, industry and corporations want quicker results than university researchers can produce. “We love it when our faculty just publish,” he said. “You can’t commercialize a law of nature.”