A growing trend of on-campus research collaborations between universities and industrial companies is bringing advantages to both sides, according to an article by John Mullin in Chemical & Engineering News. Universities receive infusions of resources that are especially welcome during a period of very tight funding. And with many of the major industrial Research and Development labs of the late 20th century sharply downsized or completely gone, the arrangement gives companies access to topflight researchers for cutting-edge projects.
Considering the history of frequent mistrust between academe and industry, the trend today has “surprisingly few critics,” Mullins writes. The reason for acceptance on campus? “It’s impossible to underestimate global competition,” says Michael F. Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, (UMass), quoted in the article. “A lot of it is driven by globalization and the rise of the Asia-Pacific region.”
UMass, along with Harvard University, is involved in collaboration with the German chemical firm BASF. Practical research “is what land-grant universities were founded to do,” Malone says, quoted in the article says. The Morrill Act, which in 1862 created the mechanism that has funded many of the nation’s great public universities, called for institutions that would “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Just such “liberal and practical education” is a byproduct of this collaboration, according to several postdocs who have worked on the Harvard-UMass-BASF partnership, and who speak in a video accompanying the article. Collaborating with industry has been a “fantastic way of getting ideas that are very relevant,” says Harvard postdoc John Wilking. His experience working with biofilms, a field he had known nothing about before joining the BASF project, helped him land a position as an assistant professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, where he will continue to work in that field.
UMass postdoc Federica Sgolastra, who hopes for a career in the pharmaceutical industry, adds in the video that the industry collaboration has helped her develop “a more entrepreneurial side of my skills.” And Harvard postdoc Esther Amstad notes that she found it “amazing how different the views are” between the university and industry, adding that it is “very helpful to see both approaches.” Industry, she learned, values quality control, “clear goals,” and the need to achieve them “within a given time frame. Within academia you basically have unlimited time.”