Science First: Contributions of a University-Industry Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program to Economic Development

By Bradshaw, Ted K.; Kennedy, Kevin M. et al. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Science First: Contributions of a University-Industry Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program to Economic Development


Bradshaw, Ted K., Kennedy, Kevin M., Davis, Paul R., Lloyd, Larry L., Gwebu, Nokuthula, Last, Jerold A., Journal of Higher Education


In spite of ongoing concerns about how to protect the core mission of the University when it tries to meet the needs of industry (Campbell & Slaughter, 1999), most universities are expanding their programs that link university researchers and industry in a diverse set of relations aimed to address social and economic development goals (Cote & Cote, 1993, p. 71; Geiger, 1992). These programs do not link universities and industry for the first time (see for example, Etzkowitz, 1997; Osborne, 1990), but they aim to speed up the process of technology transfer and to remove barriers between knowledge production and its application (Rogers et al., 1999). Increasingly these linkages involve collaborative research programs in which industry funds all or part of university based research projects that are jointly selected with industry because of their high priority for particular firms. However, in some instances university resources are being asked to address a pressing public need for knowledge, workers, and techno logy in an emerging industrial field without established firms able to identify or fund collaborative projects, and in fields where the academic foundation for it is lacking as well.

This article addresses the latter case, asking the question: Do university-based research programs without direct funding and collaboration from industry effectively transfer technology and increase economic development in emerging fields? Using the Toxic Substances Research and Teaching Program (TSRTP) at the University of California as a case study, this article will show how this program emphasizes scientific work on the problem of toxic substances but, nonetheless, has contributed to economic development and growth of the environmental technology industry. Two examples provide a context for our analysis.

Eric Gilbert, a doctoral student in the Environmental Toxicology Graduate Program at the University of California, Riverside, won the 1996 Collegiate Inventors award for discovering a chemical that works with bacteria to biodegrade the chemical PCB, a common toxic pollutant found in the soil of many contaminated sites. Gilbert worked in Professor David Crowley's lab with funding from the TSRTP, where they searched for a nontoxic chemical that could induce cometabolism of PCBs, since it is known that some bacteria can biodegrade PCB only in conjunction with another substance. Gilbert discovered that carvone, the aromatic chemical compound in spearmint, could be mixed with the bacteria to cometabolize the PCBs, making them nontoxic. This is an important discovery, since it could lead to low-cost field scale technology for remediating sites with PCB contamination. The discovery led to collaboration with EcoSoils Systems of San Diego, a company that manufactures bacteria fermentors able to be located near the pol luted site and that operates irrigation systems to apply bacteria to soils. The research led to five academic publications and a patent for the process. Gilbert has since taken a professorship position, continuing this line of research, and the lab has received additional funding to continue research and applications using equipment provided by EcoSoils.

University of California, San Francisco, researcher Dr. Leslie Benet has received funding for his lab and graduate students through the TSRTP, where they have focused on the problem of orally administered drugs not being absorbed into the body. He discovered that the problem was not the commonly accepted explanation that the drugs were insoluble or unable to permeate cell membranes, but that the body treated them as toxic substances and either metabolized them in the intestines or pumped them back out of the cells by a transporter if they got that far. Through basic research, the lab team discovered both the enzyme that was neutralizing the drugs and an inhibitor of it that will permit absorption of beneficial drugs. Benet patented his discovery through the campus and later founded a company to produce and market it. …

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