Written by Brian Kraft, Assistant Vice President for Innovation and Research Engagement
“The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.” -Abraham Lincoln
WSU, as a land grant university, was founded on the principle that we can improve our society through research and the dissemination of knowledge. We have a long and rich history of doing research and knowledge dissemination. It should be celebrated. The individuals’ whose insights, discoveries, and activities have made an impact on the world should be recognized.
Looking around both the university and our externally facing programs, it is self-evident that the public perceptions of our outputs heavily weigh toward our students. The general narrative of WSU and universities, more generally, is student training. While it’s a major part of what we do, the imbalance in the public perception is harmful to the larger mission of land grant universities generally and WSU specifically. We need a new narrative that leverages our existing strengths in student transformation and federal grant funding to realize returns for our regional constituents.
Transferring the products of our research to the public is a core principle of the land grant mission, yet this principle is only discussed in theory and is often divorced from the research operations occurring on campus. As one who has been deeply engaged in both research and efforts to move the results into practical use I have a pretty rounded view of what is needed to improve our performance.
A Path Less Traveled
“The science of today is the technology of tomorrow.” -Edward Teller
I started my professional life as a researcher. This began in my undergraduate days and led to successes in graduate school and a postdoctoral appointment in a national lab. Over this period, I put little thought into my career path: The next steps always just felt natural. As a child I was always pushing boundaries and exploring new territory, in research I felt I had found my niche, so I just kept taking the next professional steps.
It was not until the latter years in my tenure as a graduate student that I began to think in detail about my professional path forward. I loved research. I genuinely enjoyed the scientific discovery process, but could not see myself fitting into the mold of a tenure track academic. While, with the benefit of hindsight, this was a distorted view, I did not believe I could spend a career soliciting agencies for funding to deeply probe some narrow, obscure topic. I had deep respect for the folks who could follow that path, but I knew this was not for me.
So, I got to work doing my own research about what I might do for a living and landed in the relatively young field of “Technology Transfer.” Technology Transfer is a term that emerged with the passage of the Bayh-Dole act in 1980: A piece of federal legislation that allowed for universities to claim ownership of inventions developed with federal funding. This function is not specific to land grants—it is a general function that all research universities employ. It is distinct from traditional land grant functions in that it focuses on inventions with the potential for revenue generation. For these reasons it is not often associated with the land grant mission despite the fact that the net result is the same: It serves to move an idea into a product or service that is available to the public. On paper this looked like a great path, but in practice it became a process of discovery that sent me in a different direction.
Technology transfer is a relatively new field that looks like a random game of collision that occasionally sends something into the stratosphere. Being the scientist that I am, I spent months compiling the data, making the comparisons, looking for trends. I got nowhere. It was random. No one had a robust solution to this complex problem. Disenchanted with this course, I decided it was time to try something new and took a role in an academic college. At this point in my career, I had gained a reputation as a problem solving deal-maker and was asked to frame out a new role that focused on building partnerships with the private sector.
The Root of the Problem
A very interesting chapter in my professional evolution occurred in 2012 that continues to this day. Working for an academic dean within a college is a very different environment than serving in a purely administrative reporting line. The motives and intended outcomes are totally different. While Deans want to promulgate the land grant mission and the associated technology transfer activities, what they need is funding: Grant dollars and enrollment. Outcomes like disclosures and patents, quite simply, did not matter (unless they could yield income, which most cannot). What mattered was income and student successes. It is clear why we place an emphasis on our students as our principle product. The problem is we miss a significant portion of our organizational value proposition—research and innovation, that pertains to our core Land-Grant mission. This is the root of the problem and why we need a new narrative.
I have built a career around the importance of helping the public realize a return on investments in research. We need to tell our story. The university is about more than just student training, we bring new things into the world. This is a powerful function in our society and one that has led to great prosperity. It should be celebrated. The time is right to revisit our land grant roots and focus on how our research can have a positive public impact. The Entrepreneurial Faculty Ambassadors need your help collecting information about the history of innovation at WSU. Please help the effort by telling us stories you know about the history of innovation at WSU.
Please take 5 minutes of your time to fill out this survey and describe what you think is the most important innovative work that has been done at WSU.