Academia and Industry Collaboration at a PUI

21 Mar


When I applied for this job I stated in my application that I would seek extramural funding from the standard public sources for academics in science (National Science Foundation and perhaps the National Institutes of Health). I also stated that I would pursue (and encourage students to pursue) small funding opportunities from other scientific organizations and local organizations, such as Audubon societies, with an interest in natural history.  At that time in my academic career I had no plans to seek funding or research opportunities affiliated with industry sources. I had little understanding about how such collaboration would work and knew that I never wanted to be seen as a ‘pay to play’ scientist.

My first big funding opportunity came from industry.

Just 2 months into my first faculty job, a colleague in my department (with a long history of research regarding the science of wild bird feeding) walked into my office and said, “If I understand your field of research correctly, if we were to manipulate resources available to wild birds, you could capture them and determine if the manipulation influenced their health.”  I agreed that his assessment was fairly accurate and from that, a new opportunity was born.  He had been approached from representatives from a bird seed company who wanted to know if a new seed product they were developing had an impact on the health of birds and he had told them that he was pretty sure our university had just hired the guy who could help make that happen (me). My colleague made it clear that in his experience with the birdseed folks, they were willing to contribute legitimate funding to scientifically test their product.

My first thought was, “What a cool opportunity, how lucky am I to have something lined up within two months of becoming an Assistant Professor.”  That thought quickly turned to, “I am a physiological ecologist, I just earned my Ph.D. and I am fully capable of coming up with my own ideas, the last thing I need is to be ‘hired’ by a bird seed company to tell them their product is awesome.”  I had a long conversation with my colleague, I expressed my concerns and I made it clear that I would only pursue this research if a certain set of stipulations were met.

I must say that this academia/industry collaboration ended up being extremely productive, rewarding, and overall successful and I am pleased that both sides were able to come to an agreement on expectations and responsibilities. Furthermore, the students working on this project learned valuable lessons in both ecological research and in the inner workings of the academia/industry collaboration.  I think this study can serve as an example for others considering similar collaborations.


My stipulations

At this school, scholarship is very broadly defined.  Scholarly success is not only based on grants received or publications – but it is all about demonstrating growth and development in your field of study, and most importantly getting undergraduates involved in the process.  Using this definition, a faculty member could very much be commissioned by an industry source to carry out some study, fully defined by the client, with no possibility for public dissemination of the findings from the university themselves, and still demonstrate scholarly achievement if students were involved in execution of the research. This model, however, was not for me then, and is not for me now.  I was clear from the start that if we were to do this study, they funding source must agree to the following:

1.  We (the researchers) will design the experiment and choose the physiological tests to perform.  The company may recommend changes following consultation with anyone affiliated with their research and development department, but ultimately, we will determine the best way to answer the questions they have proposed.

2.  We will have a grace period after which the study is complete where we have exclusive rights to publish results from the data.

3.     Our students and my colleague and I may present this research at scientific meetings.

4.     We have the rights to publish whatever we find – even if we find that their products appear to have a negative impact on the birds.

In exchange, they reserved the rights to make any product claims based on our scientific findings (i.e. if we found that the birds eating their seed were in better body condition, they could make statements such as ‘birds eating this seed were in better body condition than birds eating the other guys seed in scientific trials’, citing our published papers, of course).  They also reserved the right to read any manuscripts prior to submission for peer review to ensure no confidential/proprietary information regarding the manufacturing process or detailed ingredients of  product itself was included before they could reveal that information with little risk of people making and selling their product under a different name, but they could not prohibit publication of the work simply because negative impacts were observed. In addition, following the grace period after completion of the study, we agree to allow them to make the data publicly available and/or share them with other interested parties as they see fit.


Why this was successful

This was successful because we could comfortably say that we were scientifically testing a question of ecological relevance in an unbiased manner.  The company could say that their products were  tested in an unbiased manner and provide evidence that any claims they make about their product has data backing the claim and the data was not collected in-house by someone on their payroll. This was a huge project for a university of our size (both in terms of the funding involved and the number of people involved).  We were able to employ a full-time technician (who happened to be an alumnus), and 12 undergraduates were able to work on this project over three years – each ‘owning’ a specific (but substantial) piece of the project for their own senior thesis, and earning co-authorship on resultant presentations and publications.  I encourage those who are uncertain about the possibilities that exist for collaboration with industry to consider how such a relationship can meet the long-term and short-term goals of both parties involved.


– TW


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