Beyond Pledges and Light Bulbs

Universities that want to really have an impact on global climate change should focus on their research and spurring the creation of green businesses, writes Larry Edward Penley.

March 28, 2008

An estimated 1.6 million people around the world -- mostly women and children -- die each year from health problems brought on by breathing the air in their own homes, where they cook meals on primitive stoves and over open pit fires. Millions more in developing countries suffer health problems and even death from polluted vehicle exhaust or tainted water. The harsh reality is that no matter how many efficient light bulbs we install on our campuses -- no matter how sustainable we make our institutions of higher education -- these changes alone will not have the major global impact needed to improve these peoples’ lives and make a difference throughout the world.

Our nation’s research universities have, within their reach, the power to change these lives for the better -- through education of a “green collar” workforce and with ground-breaking research solutions deployed through market-based enterprises. But instead, we in higher education spend a great deal of time talking about changing out light bulbs in campus buildings, when we should be focused instead on engineering a better light bulb -- and educating the knowledge leaders who will invent a replacement for the light bulb.

Universities and colleges across the country are, today, in the process of considering whether to sign on to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits institutions to making their campuses “climate neutral” through investments in infrastructure, sustainable practices and renewable energy sources, and integration of sustainability into their curriculum. I will sign it as a worthy -- if largely symbolic -- statement, and my own institution has for several years been taking steps to reduce energy use, build to LEED gold standards, and generate far more energy than we consume via the green-generation capacity of our new wind farm and solar panels. Such activities, by this point, ought to be viewed as a routine part of doing business at any university in a responsible way. We have the responsibility -- and opportunity -- to do so much more.

Universities are society’s greatest sources of ideas and innovation. They have the capacity to generate fundamental solutions to issues such as climate change -- while also preparing a skilled workforce for the anticipated demand for green-industry jobs over the next several decades. To fulfill this capacity, universities must be organized such that they have the potential to contribute to economic growth; and the products of their science and engineering research must be commercialized for the greater good. Presidents, in turn, have a responsibility to organize institutions to increase their inherent capacity to educate and develop new ideas and technologies.

Like the space race that fueled an explosion of interest and investment in universities both as research engines and as sources of high-tech workers, research related to climate change, sustainability, clean energy, and “green” science represents the next great knowledge frontier for American higher education. While engineers, atmospheric and environmental scientists, and others at universities like Colorado State have been working in these disciplines for decades, today’s raised national consciousness creates an environment conducive to expanding these disciplines and driving their research products more rapidly into the marketplace, for the benefit of the planet and all its inhabitants.

We are only just now awakening to the emerging workforce needs, from green-building architects to wind-energy engineers, that our institutions will be called on to help address in the coming decades. We need new educational programs that go beyond building sustainability into the curriculum if we really want to prepare our students for success in a green-collar economy. But in addition, we must acknowledge that the heart of a great university today is not just focused on teaching, learning, and knowledge generation, but on the institution’s capacity to take that knowledge and commercialize it for the greater good.

This challenge to universities to become more directly engaged in markets will be anathema to many in academe. Universities and capitalism have had a long, sometimes uneasy relationship. Indeed, for some it has been a wholly inappropriate relationship that can distort the university’s mission, move institutions away from basic research to more practical and industrial applications, and even hinder the ability of faculty to be neutral in their pursuit of truth. Former Harvard President Derek Bok warned that technology transfer could influence faculty in choosing which problems to investigate and might cause faculty to drift away from research into technology transfer itself. But a focus on enterprise-based solutions is hardly antagonistic to the character of higher education. Indeed, it is founded in higher education’s traditional fundamentals of teaching and learning for the benefit and betterment of society as a whole.

The real challenge is to organize universities more effectively such that their potential for promoting quality of life and economic prosperity is substantially enhanced. Except in a few instances, traditional technology transfer has not yielded the results in new products that one might have hoped for given the investment, and the costs of technology transfer, given the large number of universities with transfer offices, are fairly high for the limited yield. The problem may well be the paradigm used by universities in technology transfer efforts. In traditional technology transfer, a patent or a license is viewed as an acceptable, if passive, outcome. A paradigm that does not fuse research and development, where market-based solutions are not fully integrated into the research process, seems more like the 1940s than the 21st century. Thus, solutions to global challenges like climate change may well be hindered by the approach that universities are taking with traditional research programs and traditional technology transfer offices.

Universities now have an obligation and an opportunity to demonstrate that we have the agility, vision, and enterprise-based focus to be an effective partner in deploying innovation in support of environmental and other global challenges. To do so, institutions of higher education must reinvent their own organizational structures to both preserve the ability of scientists to pursue truth without bias or undue influence from market forces -- and the ability of the institution to take research ideas more rapidly to the marketplace.

For that reason, universities like my own have joined earlier ones like MIT and Cal Tech in adopting a clear philosophy: Take great research ideas, narrowly focus in specific areas -- such as the problem of carbon-emitting two-stroke engines in Asia -- and move them rapidly into the commercial space. Envirofit International, a Colorado State University spinoff company, provides a powerful example: It is developing what The New York Times calls “the first market-based model for clean-burning wood stove technology” for application in the developing world and has built a corporate infrastructure to support this model. But, to develop such enterprise-based solutions requires that institutions adopt new research models, as well. The NSF has coined the term “cyberinfrastructure” to describe collaborative research that depends upon common data sources made possible through cooperative measurement devices and a digital foundation for sharing information.

Once research enters the market space, it can transform lives -- generating jobs, improving health and living conditions for people worldwide, and stimulating economic prosperity. Those institutions able to incubate innovation and accelerate the transfer of research from the laboratory to the free market will succeed in solving global problems. To realize fully universities’ inherent capacity, we must move beyond our campuses, beyond generating awareness, beyond symbolism. Instead, let’s begin to focus on using our enormous capacity in support of enterprise-based solutions founded in collaborative research and academic programs that truly make a global environmental impact and prepare our students to be competitive in tomorrow’s green economy.


Larry Edward Penley is president of Colorado State University.


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