Given our obsession with weather, it is fitting that the first Canadian instrument ever to land on another planet is a weather station. On May 26, 2008, a suite of highly sophisticated meteorological tools aboard the Phoenix spacecraft started keeping tabs on the atmosphere of Mars. The design and construction of this station was led by a team of scientists and engineers from York University who collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian laser-based surveying company called Optech, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, to name a few.
It is perhaps the single most dramatic example of what can be achieved when the barriers between universities, the private sector, and government agencies are broken down.
Deconstructing those barriers is the job of "technology transfer" offices at universities across the country. Technology transfer is the process of taking the intellectual property that is generated on campus and finding ways of getting that out into the real world. It can involve patenting and licensing inventions, doing research for hire, fostering the growth of spinoff companies emanating from campus research, or building and operating research parks where private companies can set up shop in an atmosphere that is tightly integrated with campus life. For some, this represents a real step forward in the role that universities play in our society: They are no longer isolated "ivory towers" but centres of innovation where inventors and scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs can come together.
The creeping influence of the private sector on campus, however, has a number of critics. Universities have been accused of selling off their most noble mission, the pursuit of truth, to the highest bidder. Even worse, there is a perception that universities that once shared their research openly and widely have become secret enclaves, hording knowledge
until the day they can find a way to profit from it. Jennifer Washburn, author of University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, writes, "The openness and sharing that once characterized university life has given way to a new proprietary culture more akin to the business world."
Arthur Schafer, a biomedical ethicist and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba , has called for a ban on universities accepting corporate funding for research. Speaking to a conference on academic integrity last year, Prof. Shafer told the crowd, "If we want public science in the public interest, it's got to be paid through public tax dollars, it's got to be free of corporate interests."
At York, however, Stan Shapson, vice-president of Research and Innovation, does not see any conflict. "The word 'commercialization' gets certain people's backs up, and there's really no reason," he says. "Universities do a lot of basic research. In most cases these are things that are years or decades away from having an impact on society, but when faculty members are working on things that can have an impact today, then why not develop closer relationships with industry and the private sector? Researchers might have a great idea, but they don't necessarily know where to take that idea, or how to prototype it. Working with industry should be part of the natural cycle of doing research."
According to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, private sector funding for research at Canadian universities has grown dramatically, from $910 million ten years ago to over $1.7 billion today. For Dr. Shapson though, the most exciting thing about the Phoenix project wasn't the millions of dollars in research funds that came to York because of it, but the experience gained by the students and researchers. "The most important type of technology transfer that occurs," he says, "is the experience we provide to our students, most of whom are also going to wind up in private industry. We don't look at this as a money maker. In fact, if you look carefully at the business case you'll see that it's very difficult to make money this way, unless you're the University of Florida and you hit on Gatorade."
When discussing how universities might turn their research efforts into moneymakers, the subject of Gatorade always seems to come up. A mixture of water, sugar, lemon juice, sodium, potassium, and phosphate, it is one of the simplest, yet most successful products ever to come out of a university. Since the University of Florida started collecting royalties on the sports drink in 1973, it has made over $80 million (U.S.). This is the dream that keeps technology transfer officers wandering the halls of universities and asking researchers what they are working on. Everyone's chasing the next Gatorade.
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