University News

U. looks to industry for sponsored research support

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

As stimulus funds run dry and federal agencies tighten their budgets, the University plans to increasingly turn to corporate-sponsored research.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus offered increased funding through federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but elevated funding levels provided only a brief respite from ongoing financial strain. Federal agencies are all expected to have “flat budgets” in the near future, and the short-term surge in funds is nearing its end, said Clyde Briant, vice president for research. “In order to expand research opportunities, universities everywhere are looking for new sources of funding, and certainly industry is one possibility,” he said.

Facing scarce funds from the public sector, the University will “expand corporate support of research, including the possibility of a corporate associates program in the newly established School of Engineering,” according to the October update of the Plan for Academic Enrichment.

Rod Clifton, interim dean of engineering, said the University and industry alike benefit from the partnerships that emerge from corporate-sponsored research.

“As we expand our research capability, we become more attractive for industry,” he said. “It is certainly in the spirit of academic enrichment.” The University wants to contribute to knowledge growth rather than focus solely on teaching, he added.

He pointed to the University’s current partnership with General Motors, which is researching methods to manufacture lightweight cars. “They come here and spend some time, we go there and spend some time,” he said. “It is a good example of truly industrial collaborative research.”

Corporate partnerships will help make up for the decrease in federal research funding, said Ed Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences. “We had a huge boost from stimulus funding, but that is going to go away,” he said. “Funding from the NIH will decrease, especially with the Republican congress.”

Sponsored funding is a crucial part of the University’s research efforts, Wing said. “It’s a very important part of every medical school’s profile,” he said. “We don’t have enough of it, and we are actively searching for partners.”

The Alpert Medical School is partnering with the pharmaceutical industry to develop treatments for infectious diseases, Wing said. He said he hopes research will expand into other fields.

Incoming Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson said he plans to continue to push for corporate-supported research when he arrives at Brown this summer. He said he would support a corporate associates program, in which companies pay a fee to see presentations about University research and are allowed to take the ideas for development.

A program like this is “a very common thing at most research universities” and can serve as a “pretty effective tool for highlighting the great research that the University does,” Larson said.

But Clifton said he is hesitant about such a program. Though  it could serve as a “possible revenue source for the University,” he said he is “not sure that is the best current model for interacting with industry.”

Most corporate research opportunities involve companies who work with technology, so the University is most likely to form industry partnerships with the School of Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and the medical school, Briant said. The University already has established partnerships with IBM and Microsoft.

Public health could increasingly be an area of focus for corporate-supported research, he said.

Though the expansion of research offerings is often focused on graduate students, Briant said undergraduates will also benefit from an increased number of research opportunities. “The whole research picture at Brown involves graduate and undergraduate students,” he said. “There’s nothing that would prohibit an undergraduates from participating.”

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