Balancing act: CU’s new ‘industry collaboration’ office

Head of CU’s new 'industry collaboration' office vows to protect academic freedom

Caroline Himes
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

The news that the University of Colorado Boulder has created an Office of Industry Collaboration may send shivers up a few faculty spines, conjuring images of selling the university to the highest bidder, compromising academic freedom in the name of the almighty dollar, or allowing sponsoring companies to squelch research findings they don’t like.

Indeed, when CU officials announced the creation of a “Strategic Advisory Council” largely populated with current and former business executives and venture capitalists last April, it raised red flags with some faculty who feared that major corporations, in exchange for their investments, might try to exert influence on the faculty-controlled curriculum or prevent the publication of undesirable study results, for example.

“You sign an agreement that gives the corporation that’s sponsoring the research final right of refusal to not let it be published,” Math Professor Marty Walter told BW at the time. “If the results don’t come out the way Exxon or Monsanto would like them to come out, then it doesn’t get published. … Even if you don’t sign something like that, it can be made very clear that if you want more funding, you better try to cooperate. … I think the university will say that [academic freedom] is what they are dedicated to, but you wave a few million dollars in front of them, I think that probably might change their mind.”

But CU leaders insisted that the university would never make such compromises, despite the increasingly dire financial situation CU faces thanks to state funding levels that have dwindled to a trickle over the past 15 years, as well as increasing competition for declining federal grant funding.

Similarly, Caroline Himes, the person hired to be director of CU’s Office of Industry Collaboration this summer, is assuring faculty that her effort to increase industry involvement with — and funding for — the university won’t result in the corporatization of CU or its research.

While she acknowledges that there can be “natural conflicts” because “the goals of industry are different than the goals of a university,” she says the National Academies’ University-Industry Demonstration Partnership has developed some template agreements that “don’t compromise the values of either group.” It benefits the university to refer industry to this national organization’s models because “it’s not just CU being difficult,” Himes explains.

She says a company might ask to see research results before they are published, to see if anything should be patented before it goes public, for instance, but it would never be permitted to change or squelch any of those findings.

Depending on the nature of the research, agreements with industry are sent through one of three CU offices, and Himes says each has strict parameters on what is permitted. Any request to deviate from those parameters or create an exception must be reviewed by CU’s Standing Committee for Restricted, Proprietary and Classified Research, she explains, “and it’s only done with an awful lot of thought and discussion.”

According to Linda Morris of the CU Office of Research Administration and Support, there have been 24 waivers of the university’s policy on restricted, proprietary and classified research issued since 2004.

If a company seeks too much control, “we are fully willing to walk away from those,” Himes says. “We understand the importance of academic freedom and the freedom to publish. We’re not compromising a faculty member’s career path for the gain of initial research dollars.”

Himes says her role will be to expedite the process of creating agreements between the university and industry, serving as point person for both the companies and the faculty. Instead of having corporations attempt to navigate the university’s procedures, a process that has taken as long as six months to a year in the past, Himes will serve as their primary contact and shepherd the agreement through the right offices, making sure the right people are at the table.

“We don’t want to waste time on going down the wrong path and retracing our steps,” she says.

According to Himes, part of her role will be to secure the university’s intellectual property in the agreements, in hopes of increasing royalty revenue. The campus chancellor’s office has agreed to fund the office for five years, she says, but by then it is expected to run its operations using a percentage of the revenue it generates.

CU spokesperson Malinda Miller- Huey told BW that the office is receiving $650,000 in start-up funding this first year, an amount that will decline over the following four years.

“The idea is that the office will become self-supporting,” she says.

Himes stresses the importance of increasing funding from industry, given the uncertainty surrounding federal research grants, which are being cut due at least in part to sequestration. When there is less money, she explains, there are fewer calls for grant proposals, or application rounds, “and there’s a whole bunch more people jumping into each one,” resulting in more competition.

Himes notes that if a federally funded university operation, like a lab or other type of research facility, loses its grant money, industry-provided revenue becomes especially important just to keep the doors open, the staffers employed, the line of inquiry alive.

“It keeps the technicians going and the equipment calibrated and up to date,” she says.

According to Himes, the most likely areas of growth when it comes to university/industry partnerships include CU’s strengths nationally, like the biosciences, space sciences, “green” technologies, the hard sciences and business. But she adds that a whole host of fields could benefit from such agreements when one considers that many local companies are in need of university expertise and/or facilities.

The effort is expected to have a positive effect on students as well, Himes says, since students working on an industryfunded project could become good candidates for internships or full-time jobs with the corporation involved.

While there may be more pressure to run the university more efficiently, like a company, Himes reiterates that the academic side of the house will not be compromised.

“We’re not trying to turn the university into a business,” she says. “I think we have a number of checks and balances in place.”