What is “Profitable” University Research?

This weekend the Washington Post published a short article in its Business section titled “University research could be more profitable for all“.  Its author, Vivek Wadhwa, argues that university research isn’t profitable because academics are not entrepreneurs and because Universities have tried to jealously guard the fruits of their faculty.

If university research were a business, it would be bankrupt.  In 2009, the federal government, industry and philanthropic organizations invested $53.5 billion in university research. The total licensing revenue of all U.S. universities amounted to $2.3 billion that year, including royalties from technologies licensed over decades [ . . . ]

[ . . . ] We’ve invested over a trillion dollars in university research over decades. Most of this has not been commercialized. The next Internet or semiconductor technology may already have been discovered and left to languish on the shelves of a university research lab . . . Most government grants cover only the cost of writing papers — not building prototypes.

Although Wadhwa’s definition of success is unabashedly business-centric — and why shouldn’t it be, considering where it was published? — it got me thinking.  Just what is profitable University research?

A business-centric view is one way to measure success, but this can not — and should not — be applied to all University research.  Think about the germ theory of disease.  A business-centric measure of success for the ground-breaking research that led to the formulation of this theory might be this: we now have many successful (and highly profitable) companies that can market drugs for hundreds of microbe-born illness.  No doubt that these treatments have saved thousands of lives and eased human suffering; and, fortunately, they have also made some people very, very rich.  But what about diseases that are less profitable, either because they afflict too few people, or because they have cures that are too expensive to produce?  Under this business-centric view, many diseases might go unstudied because there is simply not enough profit in them.

But, from a more human-centric perspective, the greatest success of the germ theory is that it has saved the lives of millions of people through the use of more hygienic practices.  And, fortunately for the rest of us, such practices cost very little to enact — there’s no fancy drug to market or slogan to slap on a doctor’s pad, we need simply to sterilize our equipment and wash our hands.  From a research-centric perspective, germ theory opened up a revolutionary new field, microbiology, that has produced treatments for many diseases while also expanding our view of the world.  Lives and knowledge — aren’t these things worth something too?

And although it is a little easier to think about profitability in fields of applied research like medicine, technology and engineering, what does “profitable” research look like in other fields?  What about ecology and evolution?  You don’t see a lot of drugs or cool gadgets produced from this work, but you do see a lot revealing research that illuminates our place in the world and the importance of healthy ecosystems to human well-being.  What about the social sciences?  What about anything in the realm of basic research?   Success in these fields should not be measured by the money they return on their investment — this is not the goal of these fields, nor should it be.  Instead, investment in basic research is an investment of a different sort: it is an investment in ourselves, not for the profit of some, but for the illumination of all.  Basic research helps to illuminate the dark corners of the world where our fears of the unknown still remain, where the ignorance we use to justify our prejudices still hide.   Not to mention the fact that we no longer burn witches every time there’s an outbreak of cholera or hives.  These things can not be measured with a business-centric view of research, though some results will lead to new inventions, products, and treatments.  And I suppose we could try to market it.  “Science: we no longer burn witches.”  Slap that on a lunchbox and sell it; I’d buy it.  But that’s not the goal of our work.  Should it be?

Let me know what you think.  If you have any comments on what university research should produce, especially if you are not a scientist, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.


2 thoughts on “What is “Profitable” University Research?

  1. I find it interesting to see this article while watching universities become more and more business-like. Professors are no longer judged on their ability to teach, mentor, and generate quality research. Instead, they are often judged on how much grant money they can bring in and how many papers, particularly papers in high profile journals, that they can produce. Unfortunately, one major result is that the quality of education in many universities is decreasing dramatically. Writing grants and papers, and knowing how to play the publishing game (more in a moment), require a lot of time and effort, and that time has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, the time used was often previously allocated to preparing lectures, interacting with students, and outside activities such as supporting families. On top of that, professors often must learn how to navigate the politics within their departments, colleges, universities, and scientific societies to achieve high profile publications and generate funding. I am not knocking academia: I actually hope to have a career in it, but I’m sad to see the undergraduates, graduate students, and professors themselves suffer while administrators reap the benefits.

    • I agree. I remember feeling pretty sad the day I realized that the University is not some bastion of learning but a cold, hard business. But now I have a hard time thinking of it any other way.

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