Industry Funding for Scientific Research

CITRIS was featured in a recent article by Joaquin Palomino in the East Bay Express that explores the complicated relationship between corporate support and scientific research on university campuses. An excerpt from the article is below. Click here to read the complete article.

“…Most public-private partnerships at Cal involve multiple companies, don’t encompass entire departments, and include safeguards to ensure that the basic principles of academia are preserved. In turn, many professors believe that the situation has improved: “In the old days, there was an element of people doing superb research and then publishing it in the literature and then hoping something good would happen,” said Paul Wright, director of the engineering department’s CITRIS lab. “Now, organizations like ours have developed, and we can more easily take those brilliant research ideas and turn them into commercially oriented products.”

CITRIS is a seven-story glass edifice in the middle of the engineering quadrant. The lab receives between $50 and $60 million a year in research grants, roughly a quarter of which comes from its 36 corporate partners, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel. Despite being heavily funded by industry, CITRIS is a public good, Wright said. “Everything we do has to be a part of the open literature …. None of it is exclusive, it can be licensed by anybody.”

Some other public-private partnerships, such as the one Cal has with BP, designate a portion of the research results as property of the investing company. Wright also noted that professors have full autonomy in choosing what to research at the CITRIS lab. “No one is telling me what I should work on as a faculty member, and the students have the same freedom as well.”

During the fall semester, I spoke with a half-dozen graduate students after a class at CITRIS. All of them believed that thanks to the protections put in place by Wright and his colleagues, the benefits of working alongside industry outweigh the dangers. But it was also apparent that the presence of corporate sponsors on campus is affecting students’ views of basic science research. “As an undergraduate, you learn all of this theory and it’s nothing practical,” said Alex Heller, an engineering Ph.D. student. “With these corporate entities, though, I can see where this skill set is practical, and where I can use it in the future.”…

Paul Wright, CITRIS Director. Photo credit: Lori Eanes

(photo credit: Lori Eanes)