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Funding Innovation’s Future

September 05, 2012 By Sasha Hulsey, Policy Associate

The Haralson apple, pioneering Internet navigation software, and the retractable seat belt are all University of Minnesota inventions. We are better as a society because of previous generations' public investments in general and applied research. However, as public dollars dwindle for research universities, there's concern more of this brain power will work to promote specific industry-funded advancements over expanding general scientific knowledge. 

Let's take a step back, the modern research university concept originated in Germany in the late nineteenth century. The United States expanded this idea with the land grant system, which provided states land to run universities with a mission of advancing agriculture, science and engineering. The results of which are made available in the public domain.

In the twenty-first century, programs at research universities have expanded, new facilities and labs have been constructed. Federally funded organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute for Health (NIH), which represent the majority of basic research grants, have maintained steady support for basic research activities. However, federal research funding and development in the United States is projected to decrease by 1.6%, from 2011 ($127.7 billion) to 2012 ($125.7 billion) due to federal budget cuts. This is on top of a decade-long decline in state general funding for the University of Minnesota.

At the same time private funding is growing, but in some cases with strings attached. Industry-funded applied research is expected to increase by 3.7% from 2011 ($270 billion) to 2012 ($280 billion.) Between 2011 and 2012, industry funding for research and development at higher education institutes alone was projected to increase by 26.5%.

Industry funding sometimes comes with non-disclosure agreements, which restrict publication of results. This contradicts university norms that research findings are made public and uncensored. Will the imbalance between industry funding and federal funding ultimately lead to a lack of basic science research crucial for some of the most important scientific discoveries?

The principle purpose of research is to push the boundaries of knowledge and discover more about the universe. Regardless of funding source, if the results become available to everyone to benefit all, there is no complaint.

Industry-funded research becomes a problem when publication of findings is restricted or censored. The problem is two-fold: research results which are withheld from the public domain don’t benefit and promote research which might otherwise follow. Graduate students and younger faculty whose careers are typically measured and enhanced by their record of publications are also affected when their research results cannot be published.

A survey done by Carnegie Mellon University, found that “50% of corporations force a delay in publishing the results of joint research.” and “33% of respondents reported that the industry sometimes deletes information from papers before publication.”

Several institutions around the country, such as Cornell University, have created policies banning any “research projects which do not permit the free and open publication, presentation or discussion of results . . . in particular, research which is confidential to the sponsor or which is classified for security purposes.”  

Over the past several decades, universities in the United States have seen a trend toward greater interest in applied research, with less focus on basic research. However, basic research, known in some departments as “blue skies research,” remains very important. Basic research is curiosity-driven and does not have immediate commercial value, but it does create a crucial foundation for applied science and has itself resulted in many important scientific discoveries. Examples of this include DNA, the Internet, and a discovery made close to home, the anti-HIV drug known as Ziagen developed by University of Minnesota professor Bob Vince

For corporations, it makes sense to invest in research that will be applicable (and profitable) in the short-term. Applied research has value, but not without a foundation and funding for basic research. Partnerships between industries and universities which seek to answer specific research questions to benefit a corporation (and hopefully, humanity) can be harmonious and successful for both parties, especially if the university has an equal part in deciding the terms of sponsorship.

As government funding decreases, many universities are attempting to reach out more to industry, even here in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota, in 2011, unveiled a new strategy (MN-IP) to bring in more corporate sponsorship by simplifying the regulations on intellectual property and patent rights. This means that corporate sponsors will have to pay ten percent of the contract upfront (at a minimum cost of $15,000) and for this they will receive sole rights to the intellectual property. The University may only collect royalties if the amount of sales exceeds $20 million. If the University of Minnesota schools switch to greater reliance on private funding for research, how will this affect their public mission?

Budget cuts, on both the state and federal levels, are sure to continue for the foreseeable future. Universities should focus on the creation and adherence to policies that restrict censorship of research publications (or if delay of publication is imperative, limit this to six months maximum), and allow the university, its researchers and professors to decide the terms of industry-funded research projects. In order for the US to stay competitive in the global field of research and development, we need to ensure that graduate students (and younger faculty) are given the best opportunities to succeed with their research and publications, and that basic research continues to be a cornerstone of university academics.

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