Education’s new frontier

    In 1993, Michael Doyle did not set out to fundamentally change the then-infant Internet. Instead, the UC San Francisco biology researcher was working with three-dimensional images of the heart, images he wanted to share with colleagues. So Doyle tinkered with some computer code, birthing the technology responsible for the first interactive Web pages — a technology now ubiquitous in Web browsers and essential to the Internet.

    By 1998, the University of California had secured a patent for the technology and licensed it to a company run by Doyle. Shortly thereafter, both the university and the researcher filed suit against Microsoft, alleging that the software giant’s Internet Explorer violated Doyle’s patent; last year, a jury agreed, giving the UC system and Doyle’s firm more than $520 million in damages — an amount equal to almost a fifth of the total funds the state of California gives to UC campuses each year. Though the controversy is still making its ways through the courts, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reaffirmed Doyle’s patent earlier this fall.

    Perhaps like few other inventions, Doyle’s discovery is emblematic of the changes at American universities that has accompanied the arrival of the high-tech information economy. More and more, the business of universities is becoming less “teaching,” and more “inventing.”

    “Universities provide an effective vehicle for transferring cutting-edge technology from the lab to the manufacturing floor,” said Mathew M. Nordan, vice president of research at Lux Research, a nanotechnology consultancy, during testimony in Congress this summer.

    Half a century ago, college was viewed as the place to train students to become effective members of the workforce. But at the beginning of a new millennium, the mission of universities is changing. Some policy experts predict that it is creative capital, not traditional economic comparative advantages, that will provide the basis of future economic growth in America.

    “Where once we optimized our organizations for efficiency and quality, now we must optimize our entire society for innovation,” stated the Council on Competitiveness, a group made up of business, union and academic leaders, in a 2004 report on the American economy.

    With newly emerging economies in India and China, both of which produce highly skilled workers who are willing to work for low wages, economic experts argue that America’s future will not be based on traditional “factors of production”- — things like higher quality of the workforce or lower costs. On these axes, it simply cannot remain competitive. Instead, they believe that the United States can retain its economic dominance by tapping into its unique culture of high-growth entrepreneurship, competing in the field of new and robust ideas.

    In the words of the Council on Competitiveness, America must “innovate or abdicate.”

    And entrepreneurship advocates, including tthe Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, believe that universities will be central to incubating innovation. In particular, they focus on a process known as “technology transfer” — the way new ideas generated by academics enter the marketplace, in much the same way that Doyle’s novel invention was transformed for wider application.

    “The capitalization of knowledge represents a transformation of the role of the university in society comparable to the first academic revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when research became an accepted academic task,” stated Henry Entzkowitz, who headed the Inter-University Seminar on Knowledge Based Economic Development, in a 2001 article in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. “[A] ‘second academic revolution’ is underway as universities combine teaching and research with technology transfer and thus play a more central role in the economy.”

    Recent research, including much funded by the Kauffman Foundation, suggests that universities are best placed to breed creative new entrepreneurs — across all disciplines. The keys to successful innovation, it suggests, are unique social networks and willingness to accept risk. And universities have both.

    College students, in particular, are best placed to take risks on new ideas, since few have mortgages or family to worry about. And college campuses uniquely bring together technological geniuses and business management leaders — in other words, a perfect recipe for innovation.

    In health care alone, UCSD has “spun-off” more than 60 companies, according to UCSD Associate Vice Chancellor of External Education Mary Walshok, who made a presentation at a September conference on innovation and entrepreneurship hosted by the Kauffman Foundation.

    Commercialization of new ideas has also proven to be a profitable business for universities, and not just in the form of licensing fees they receive from new technologies. Since 1980, the government has given universities billions of dollars in research grants with few strings attached, monies that do not need to be paid back.

    For example, about a third of UCSD’s record $1.9 billion in revenue in 2004 came from grants and contracts. It received less than half of that amount from California taxpayers and student fees.

    But not all academics welcome their brethren’s role in promoting research and profits.

    “I believe universities have sold their souls,” said UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professor Russell L. Doolittle in a 2003 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “There’s a neglect of duty when faculty pay so much attention to their companies, rather than their undergraduate teaching.”

    For now, those who share Doolittle’s fear remain in the minority.

    ‘Flight of the creative class’

    In late July, top academics and policy experts met in a luxurious conference room on the top floor of the Dirksen Senate office building in Washington, D.C. Few, however, were there for the free food and booze.

    The event was a forum on innovation, hosted by Johns Hopkins University, America’s first research university (founded in 1876) and the top national recipient of federal funding. But the atmosphere was anything but cheerful, acknowledged Johns Hopkins University President William R. Brody, who moderated the discussions.

    “The legacy America bequeaths to its children will depend on the creativity and commitment of our nation to build a new era of prosperity at home and abroad,” Brody told Congress earlier that month. “The generation of new knowledge through research, and the transmission of existing knowledge in a world-leading education system are the two essential elements of a productive and innovative society.”

    America’s leadership in generating creative new ideas, he warned, was being challenged by growing competition from other nations.

    “The race belongs to the swiftest,” Brody said. “We must keep running.”

    In particular, Brody decried shrinking government investment in research and development. In 1965, federal R&D totaled more than 2 percent of America’s gross domestic product, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget; in 2005, it is estimated to be less than half as much.

    Under the administration of President George W. Bush, most new research funds have flowed toward defense technology. And even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, which provided the seed money for creation of the Internet, has shifted its focus toward “applied” research, instead of the chin-scratching, theoretical kind loved by pointy-headed academics. However, it is the latter — what Brody calls “far-out frontier research” — that has proven to provide the largest long-term economic gain.

    “Boy, we’ve got a big problem on our hands,” said George Mason University economic development professor and best-selling author Richard Florida a month before the Johns Hopkins forum just several blocks away.

    In 2002, Florida wrote “The Rise of the Creative Class,” a book showing how a new “creative class” was transforming the American economy. But in June, Florida was launching his second book, ominously titled “The Flight of the Creative Class.”

    His basic thesis is that other countries have “gotten hip to the talent thing.” And America, which has long relied on foreigners to make up nearly half of its graduate students in math and science fields, is falling behind. In particular, stringent visa regulations and the perception of xenophobia in the post-9/11 era have driven foreign students to other countries, particularly Canada, he warned.

    Without major changes in priorities, Florida and Brody say that new innovation on university campuses will not sustain itself.

    For now, though, that may not be of much concern to students. As Doolittle would surely point out, “entrepreneurial spirit” is not a category measured on the Course and Professor Evaluations students fill out every quarter.

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