Corporate support for research now focused on investment
The digital camera program exemplifies what James Gibbons is trying to do.
"One of my goals is to find research themes and partnerships that have the potential to change a sector of industry significantly, and then get companies that would be affected by that change to invest in these projects," says Gibbons, former dean of engineering who is now serving as a special counsel for industry relations to President Gerhard Casper.
"One thing interesting about this project is that every participant looks at it in a slightly different way," he says. Kodak sees that it could have a major impact on its film processing business. Hewlett-Packard sees an opportunity to use a digital camera, a computer and color printer to create a "photo shop" at home where people can manipulate images captured by the camera and decide what they want to print. Intel believes that these kinds of chips could become one of the next large users of silicon, he reports.
"Yet the research that we have to do to help make this happen is something that is within our grasp. It shows that there are some themes where research by a group of focused faculty and students can have a major impact on an important sector of industry," Gibbons says.
The technology's potential impact is not limited to just a certain set of companies. It also could extend to companies that want to be in the industry and those that serve the industry. It is also likely to cause a shift in the very nature of the industries involved by creating basic changes, such as the replacement of chemical with electronic processing.
One factor that has limited universities in pursuing these kinds of high-impact research projects is that they frequently require expertise that extends beyond school boundaries, as is the case with the digital camera program. But identifying these kinds of opportunities is essential in maintaining and increasing corporate funding for university research, Gibbons says.
In the past, industry support of university research was predominantly philanthropic, or long-term in nature. Companies gave money to universities for research that was not of direct importance to them. Before American companies were re-engineered, corporate research groups funded university research largely because they found it interesting. But, except for philanthropy from corporate foundations, such unfocused generosity is a thing of the past, Gibbons says.
"The new reality for corporate support is definitely centered on investment rather than philanthropy," Gibbons says. This approach allowed him to play a key role in assembling the industry backing for the digital camera program. He also has helped put together joint university/industry research programs in computational genetics, technology policy and risk management, and he is working on two more, one in quantum computing and the other in brain research.
"I think these partnerships can and
will form naturally, without my long-term involvement," Gibbons
says. "If I'm right about that, then I should be able to work
myself out of a job in the not-too-distant future."