Making research make a difference

Few young scientists enter their fields with a passion for endlessly pursuing grants, revising rejected papers, and abandoning fruitless experiments. We have had the pleasure of working with somewhere north of 500 researchers, young and old, and each one has been fueled by a common desire—to make a difference.

I talked earlier about the options for moving science and technology out of the university research laboratories and into broader use (Forks in the road).  The National Academies of Science recently created a working committee to review the current state of university intellectual property and make recommendations regarding its future.  While their recommendations are grist for another post, I wanted to point out their nice job in cataloging the many pathways by which ideas, generated in university labs, get out to make a difference in the world.

How technology really transfers:

1. movement of highly skilled students (with technical and business skills) from training to private and public employment;

2. publication of research results in the open academic literature that is read by scientists and engineers in all sectors;

3. personal interaction between generators and users of new knowledge (e.g., through professional meetings, conferences, seminars, industrial liaison programs, and other venues);

4. firm-sponsored (contract) research projects involving firm-institution agreements;

5. multi-firm arrangements such as university-industry cooperative research centers;

6. personal individual faculty and student consulting arrangements with individual private firms;

7. entrepreneurial activity of faculty and students occurring outside of the university without involving university-owned IP; and

8. licensing of IP to established firms or to new start-ups companies.

(from “Committee on Management of University Intellectual Property: Lessons from a Generation of Experience, Research, and Dialogue”)

It is most important, however, to recognize that this list is not an a la carte menu from which researchers, interested in making a difference, can pick and choose the ways they are most comfortable advancing their science.

Truly revolutionary ideas must travel down more than one of these paths before their full impacts are realized.  Alexander Fleming’s insight got the most credit for Penicillin’s impact, but in truth the antibiotic effects of mold had been noted, studied, and published decades before Fleming.  The development and commercialization of penicillin can be traced through all the paths listed—and by the heroic and collaborative efforts of the scientists, government officials, and industrial partners who were involved in each path. I suspect the same can be said of other great breakthroughs led by university scientists and engineers, such as the Internet, gene splicing, or computer science.

To make the difference they once set out to make, researchers must move comfortably down any or all of these different pathways as necessity dictates. It’s not easy to venture down unknown paths but, in the end, if the researchers themselves do not commit to doing so, nothing will happen.