IDEAS FOR SALE


Growing Pains
Resources, competition, and our institutional character
By Donald G. Stein, Professor of Neurology and Psychology and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences


Join the discussion

Ideas for Sale

When the focus shifts to the bottom line, basic research always takes a hit.
Margo Bagley, Assistant Professor of Law

Technology transfer is just a subset of knowledge transfer.
Dennis Liotta, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry

New: "If technology transfer offers a solution to the funding crisis in higher education, it does so only in a very limited way."
An interview with Lanny Liebeskind, Professor of Chemistry

Show me the money . . .
1997 licensing income and patents from Emory and other institutions

What is applied research?

How does funding work in the sciences?

Overheard on campus
Remarks from Stanley Chodorow, CEO of the California Virtual University and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania


Academic Exchange December 1999/January 2000 Contents Page


What do we mean at Emory when we say we want to be the absolutely uncontested, premier educational institution in the South? Do we want the most commercial research contracts? Do we want the fastest growth of patented technology transfer? Do we want to attract the best scholars regardless of discipline and support them in a way that maximizes their intellectual productivity? Will we continue to put university resources into teaching excellence even in areas that don't have an immediate commercial value?

All these questions go into defining Emory's culture and vision of excellence, and they must be debated by all segments of this community as we define our institution's future. Let us begin, then, with the question of university resources.

The criteria for University Research Committee funding often favors younger, newly-hired scholars who need seed money to get started on a project, and this is as it should be. The start-up package is probably the first and last time that a university will commit significant funding to an individual. Beginning faculty need such support to get started, and besides, these are the people who are at the cutting edge of research and usually have the latest techniques at their disposal but who have little or no experience in obtaining grants or contracts.

My experience leads me to believe that younger and mid-career faculty often have a better shot at getting extramural funding than those who have been around a long time. I think this is the case at the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and most of the grant-making entities in the arts and humanities as well. Consequently, many universities pressure established faculty members to be very entrepreneurial, making salaries and infrastructure (equipment, administrative support) dependent upon the faculty member's ability to get government or private-industry grants.

THE HIGH COST OF ENTREPRENEURIALISM

Universities choosing this route sometimes even get caught up in a "star" system where, as with top athletes and business executives, top researchers who get big grants can "write their own ticket" for positions and support. They are always in demand because they can bring in substantial indirect cost returns to their deans. Often these stars do little or no teaching, are hardly ever around campus, and contribute little to the campus community other than their fame and stature.

As a result, a university can seriously drain its resources luring superstars at the expense of other productive faculty who may not be as well known. It is often these other faculty who provide the infrastructure, the parametric knowledge that the stars need to remain stars. This problem can be easily overlooked in the university system, but it's like hiring a phenomenal quarterback while letting the offensive and defensive lines get weak. The team is still not going anywhere, despite the expensive superstar. And when he or she moves to another team, what then?

It is true there is tremendous pressure these days for academicians, especially in the health sciences and computer sciences, to be as entrepreneurial as possible and to get as heavily involved with the business community as possible to win contracts or grants. I think for Emory to go overboard on this model would be a mistake. There is a very high cost associated with this approach: the classic, traditional university mission of seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake--and disseminating that knowledge as widely as possible--can be severely compromised.

Why? Let me offer a few examples. If you're working with a corporation to develop a new drug or a new computer chip, or maybe to clone and use a gene, the information you're dealing with is highly proprietary. Consequently, you are restricted from disseminating the knowledge. Talking about it to colleagues across the hall could jeopardize the intellectual property. It would be entirely inconsistent
to put students on such projects, because how would they be able to communicate with each other? What kind of open defense of their work could they have? How would graduate students be able to write and publish their dissertations?"

At a university, proprietary arrangements change the very nature of the mission of the research. Are you there to develop products for industry? Is the focus of your research product-oriented, or is it knowledge-oriented? These are very different questions. Further, who will be given the credit for the discoveries? The student, the faculty member, or the corporation?

In such a setting, the whole issue of inventorship, authorship, and intellectual freedom can become highly contested. With my background, I could have gone into the pharmaceutical industry as a young man. But I was attracted to the university life because of the opportunities for intellectual freedom and exchange of ideas among people across national and international boundaries. I wanted to be in an environment where that kind of intellectual, personal, and professional autonomy existed. I think most of us were drawn to the academy for similar reasons.

ERODED ACADEMIC VALUES

Given the current funding situation in most major research universities, however, I think these core academic values have been, and continue to be, severely eroded. As long as universities across America insist that their faculty focus primarily on becoming entrepreneurs rather than scholars, the distinction between the academy and the business community will become increasingly blurred. Those of us in academia would do well to remember that business is not in the business
of doing good; business is in business to make money. Corporate funders demand certain directions or certain foci for the money they give.

I'm not at all sure that it's in the best interests of any of us--business, government, or society as a whole--to perceive and treat our national university system as just another business sector. I don't support the view that education is simply another "product" of our society and that students should be seen merely as customers. I strongly believe (and my friends in the business community support this notion) that enlightened business leaders with an understanding of the true value of a liberal arts education understand the need to maintain the university as a place where ideas can be developed and discussed, where existing paradigms can be challenged, where experimentation--and yes, even failures--can happen without always worrying about "the bottom line."

It's not that we shouldn't encourage entrepreneurship at all; it's simply a question of balance--that is what needs debating. What is the main mission of the university? How much can or will the university support projects and areas of inquiry that have no short or long-term financial payoff, but simply are good or interesting or exciting things to do, as esoteric as they may be?

The answer depends on what kind of university we want to be. Each university defines its own institutional "culture" and we--the faculty, the administrators, the trustees, this whole, big, sprawling entity we call Emory--are the ones charged with making these distinctions. If we decide to be a liberal arts institution in the broadest sense of that term, shouldn't part of our development efforts be focused upon providing the resources necessary to be that, regardless of the potential (or lack of potential) for immediate economic payoff?

As I depart this office, I worry. Clearly, we are doing a lot of things right, but the potential for distraction and lack of focus is real and always at our door. Given the hyper-development of this whole region, we sometimes get caught up in a competitive mania to the extent that we don't always focus as much as we should on academic values.

Don Stein will return to the faculty at the end of this year after having served as dean of the graduate school since 1995.