The View from Both Sides: University-Industry Applied Research Contracts

Article excerpt



The rapid shift from debates over basic versus applied research to actual applied research contracting between industries and universities left a void in information for both the pre-agreement (personal, organizational, and initiation factors) and agreement (negotiations, contract provisions, and fulfillment) phases of such contracts. The need for qualitative and quantitative research to build operational models and establish guidelines has been widely reported.

The specific purposes of this study were (a) to identify recurring patterns in the pre-agreement and agreement phases of such contracts which could affect the success or failure of applied research contracts and (b) to provide qualitative in-depth case studies for comparison and reference.

Conclusions draw from in-depth case studies were (a) a declining industrial philanthropic attitude, (b) mutual enthusiasm for one-on-one contracts, (c) mutual expectations of increasing directed basic and applied contracts, (d) patent ownership conflicts, (e) mutual awareness of the need for cooperative research, (f) compatibility of expectations, and (g) awareness of university patent management efforts.

A research project of four case studies of one-on-one university-industry applied research contracting paired four research universities with four major corporations in locations from the East Coast to the West. These cases provided a wealth of information on factors which contributed to the success of contracts dating from 1984-1987, rangin in value from $15K to $7M, and dealing with topics as diverse as tilt-tray design and reevaluation, design and synthesis of cellulose substantive dyes, distributed computing technology, and evaluation and development of warp sizing products.

In the early stages of the project, the desire study "applied" rather than "basic" research cases revived traditional questions on whether applied research was, could be, or should be conducted by universities. Some industrialists with whom the project was discussed felt university research had been and would continue to be primarily theoretical, "ivory tower" and mentioned what they perceived as problems of confidentiality and slowness of university research. Some academicians questioned the appropriateness and practicality of applied research as a function of the university. Similar attitudes were reflected on a national level in the 1980-84 era [1]. But by 1985-88, such attitudes were declining, as international competition and technology transfer issues intensified. Questions of academic freedom, while still important, were overtaken by questions on intellectual property rights, publication restrictions, and exclusive and nonexclusive licensing. Statements on the necessity and value of cooperative research at all stages of R&D came from industry and academia, and The Wall Street Journal cited an astounding 150% increase in industrial support of university research from 1980-86 [2].

But research on university-industry research contracting during this period was limited to three-party contracts (university-industry-government) [3], surveys of attitudes on impediments to such relationship [4], and empirical studies of the National Science Foundation cooperative research centers [5]. Teh one-on-one university and industry contracts that were analyzed were the sensational multi-million-dollar ones (i.e., MIT-Whitehead, Washington University-Monsanto et al.) that included both basic and applied research [6]. While studies were slow to materialize, guidelines generated by national conferences and individuals were plentifu [7], along with legal advice [8], surveys on conflicts of interest and delay of publication [9], "how to's" on contract writing [12], and compendiums on intellectual property rights [11].

Case Study Objectives

The lack of data on actual cases of applied contracting served as the impetus for this research project. …