Industry-sponsored research upholds UC commitment to public service, educational missions

letter to the editor
Willow Yang/File

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The Daily Californian’s recent piece about private-sector-sponsored research includes significant misrepresentations of both the financial implications of this type of research and how it is supportive of the University of California’s public interest missions. Specifically, this piece mischaracterizes why we seek funding from industry and their partnership in research, and it misses the point about how a university that wishes to help transform the way our society cares for its people and the environment can engage in the world.

A central premise of the piece is that these collaborations with industry represent an effort to address the campus budget deficit. Closely related to this is the assertion that accepting funding from industry for a specified research project compromises our values in some way. The facts do not support either of these arguments.

Industry-sponsored research has only a minor impact on central campus finances. While it is true that industry-sponsored research increases the amount of research funding available to UC Berkeley faculty and students, it has a largely neutral effect on the central campus finances and is neither a solution nor a contributing factor to our current budget deficit.

The fact is that research dollars, no matter the source, do not alleviate the campus budget deficit. The bulk of research funding is used to meet the direct costs of the research itself, while overhead costs are largely covered through indirect cost-recovery mechanisms. Government- and industry-sponsored research contribute to indirect costs at an equal percentage of the provided funding.

Additionally, industry-sponsored research creates public benefit. University faculty engage in these collaborations because of the far-reaching societal benefits of translating their basic research discoveries into applications in health, agriculture, energy technology and many other fields, as well as the educational benefits of industry-sponsored research to our undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Indeed, it is often industry that brings problems to the academy to inspire new discoveries and helps faculty to choose important new problems.

For many faculty members, the adoption of their new ideas in the commercial sphere represents an ultimate test of the quality of their ideas, and the use by the public of their inventions is one of their most cherished accomplishments and signs of public service. This cannot be achieved by publication in academic journals alone; in many cases, close work with partners in industry is required to work through the many issues that must be solved for an idea to become practical reality.

Careful academic research on the societal impacts of corporate-sponsored research at the University of California as a whole, including the national laboratories it manages, further supports the validity of our collaboration with industry.

The UC and other public research universities support research financially because it is a central part of our public service and educational missions. We are proud of our university’s partnerships and collaborations with the private sector and believe deeply in the benefits industry-sponsored research projects produce and the extent to which they advance the greater good. Through our carefully crafted and monitored contracts with external partners, we safeguard our values and interests. It is through these partnerships that we can speed the delivery of beneficial innovations, goods and services to the public we serve.

The university does not own refineries that can produce new, sustainable sources of renewable energy. The university does not have a factory where new, life-saving drugs can be produced. We partner with industry in order to make the world a cleaner, healthier and more fulfilling place for all to live.

G. Steven Martin is the interim vice chancellor for research. Paul Alivisatos is the executive vice chancellor and provost.