Operating in the `Real World': Industrial Research Institute Fosters University-Business Relationships

By Dessoff, Alan | Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, February 2001 | Go to article overview
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Operating in the `Real World': Industrial Research Institute Fosters University-Business Relationships


Dessoff, Alan, Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education


The relationship between higher-education institutions and private industry often is sensitive. In the past, Columbia University chemistry professor Nicholas Turro said, universities and industry had little to do with each other, and most universities liked it that way. Some still do. But that's not the "real world" today, Turro said, and there are reasons for both sides to improve their relationship. Universities need the financial support that industry provides, including funding for research that faculty and students conduct. Industry needs what universities produce--trained graduates and the knowledge they bring with them into the workforce.

Improving the university-industry relationship is part of the mission of the Industrial Research Institute, a Washington-based non-profit organization that operates in the real world. "Given the rapid pace of technological change and increased international competition, IRI recognizes the need to strengthen existing interactions and to build new linkages between industry and universities," the organization declared in a position statement last year.

Fourteen companies comprised the original membership of the institute when it was formed in 1938 as an association of research directors under the auspices of the National Research Council. IRI's members today are some 265 industrial and service companies with a common interest in effective management of technological innovation. They pay annual dues of $3,900.

Member companies must maintain a technical staff and laboratory for industrial research in the United States, Canada, or Mexico. Most, located primarily in the United States, invest more than $100 billion annually in research and development, representing more than 70 percent of the nation's privately funded effort, according to IRI. Representing diverse industries including aerospace, automotive, chemical, computer, and electronics, IRI members provide jobs for more than 10 million American workers, including some 500,000 scientists and engineers, and generate some $3 trillion in annual sales, representing one third of the gross domestic product.

Support of academic research--$2.16 billion in 1999--is only a small part of industry's R&D allocation, but it is growing about 10 percent annually, IRI President Charles F. Larson said. Continued growth of this funding by industry is particularly important in establishing closer links with universities, he said.

In a forecast of R&D trends for 2000, the IRI said R&D "is becoming more externally collaborative," as evidenced by more emphasis on subcontracting to outside commercial agencies and universities. The trends "highlight the need for new models of interaction with universities" as well as with government laboratories, the IRI stated. The trends report added: "We observe informally that there are more strategic partnerships developing with universities that may offset the tendency to reduce untargeted academic research funding from industry."

"This is a mainstream issue that is getting bigger as time passes," agreed Russell D. Jamison, professor of materials science and engineering and director of the technology and management program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The reason, Jamison suggested, is that "so many companies are downsizing or eliminating their own research capabilities and are looking to universities to fill that void."

Jamison and Columbia's Turro are among nine university representatives who comprise IRI's Academic Advisory Council, part of the organization's University Relations Committee. The mission of the committee is to "foster interaction between member companies and the academic community" and the council "helps the committee study industry-university problems related to R&D," according to IRI publications.

Essentially, IRI provides a forum through meetings and publications for discussion of the university-industry relationship within a broader context of industrial R&D.

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