Originally published in John’s Journal: Research and Development by the University of Missouri. Copyright 2006, Curators of the University of Missouri.
Public research universities are faced with the ongoing challenge of finding the best combination of funding sources to match their missions. The relative proportion of funding from the state, tuition and fees, services, gifts and endowments and granting agencies all contribute to the character and capabilities of the institution.
By its very nature, the economic development mission exposes the tension between the university as a public good and the individual interests of the private sector. How do we deal with industry funding and influence? Can our researchers serve both students and their own inventive interests? Can increasing our engagement with private business interests really equate to greater impact and furthering the public good?
While highly successful in competing for federal funding, the University of Missouri has received comparatively little financial support from industry. The University of Missouri-Columbia usually garners no more than about 5 percent of grant dollars from the private sector, and our other UM campuses receive proportionately less private support.
Our aim is to do more than simply increase industry funding. We hope to attract private sector partners to improve the value of our research and to engage those partners in both the university and state economies. Among our strategies are the following:
Research Agreements – Life science companies and early stage venture firms are two examples of private sector partners for the University. We seek allies that respect our basic research and are willing to provide funding in exchange for further development rights and to bring the results to market on behalf of both the company and the University.
Start Ups – The University is now putting in place the facilities (such as incubators and research parks), the funding pipeline, and the policies to help encourage Missouri-based innovation to take root. Requiring management experience and the ability to spread the risk, partners such as Columbia’s own Centennial Investors, and venture firms outside mid-Missouri, make this alternative more realistic than past attempts.
Managing Conflicts of Interest – Serving at least two masters is part of the challenge any faculty member must accept before joining a public research university. The University is encouraging a culture of disclosure and transparency rather than avoidance and secrecy. There are few public/private boundaries that cannot be managed when approached with a genuine attitude of trust and goodwill.
Through the use of these and other tools, it is our hope that we can both broaden and deepen the impact of the University in the economy. It would be foolish to pretend that our commitment to economic development will not have its challenges. However, we must trust our ability to manage the important balance between the private enterprise and the public good. The University of Missouri and the state stand much to gain much from these public/private partnerships.
(A version of this entry was published in the Columbia Business Times.)