The University of Alaska system was recently hit hard after plummeting oil prices affected state tax revenue. To keep the lights on, the campuses are getting creative. “The price of oil is going to rebound somewhat, but we’re never going to go back to the level of state funding we had in the past,” says Larry Hinzman, the vice chancellor of research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “So we are looking to diversify our revenue sources.”
A lot of schools are. In many cases, state funding is earmarked to support university infrastructure, like lights, classrooms, and general maintenance, but there isn’t funding set aside for much else, like new lab equipment, sports teams, career services, and innovation hubs. That’s where corporate relationships prove vital—as noted by the names of many campus buildings or job-fair sponsors. Public records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that at Iowa State University, for example, donations from Dow, Syngenta, and Monsanto helped fund the athletics department. At the University of Michigan, a consortium of automotive manufacturers, telecommunications companies, economic-development groups, and others have formed the Mobility Transformation Center, where they aim to build a smart grid of connected and automated vehicles. In a partnership with the University of Washington, Amazon launched Amazon Catalyst, which provides grant funding to any member of the university community, in any discipline, with an idea to tackle a pressing societal issue.
Often, these endeavors can be great academic experiences for university students. After all, research being conducted at universities at any given time could end up influencing nearly every aspect of the average consumer’s life—from the nutrients in food to car-safety mechanisms to life-saving drugs. Research leads to product development and policy decisions; it finds its way into medicine cabinets and hospital rooms and onto dinner tables and digital tablets. And when conducted at a university, research has the air of impartiality—something many corporations use to their advantage.
“Because public-education budgets are increasingly reliant on large private donations, the competition ends up being fierce for them,” says Michael Halpern, the deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And that can be a significant threat to both academic freedom and public faith in the independence of higher education.”
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In 2015, a group of researchers, including Dr. Stephen Smith of Iowa State University, argued in a paper that increased intellectual-property protections for genetically modified crops benefit farmers and consumers alike. An industry trade group, the American Seed Trade Association, funded the project, and Smith has served as chair of that group’s intellectual-property committee. Last spring, Smith published a second version of the paper, not as a result of duplicating the study, but to make the findings more accessible to plant breeders and policy-makers. This reissuance was timed to publish just as the first wave of patents on genetically modified organisms were expiring and new intellectual properties were entering the open market. The patent changes meant that seed dealers could now breed varietals based on previously protected intellectual property—and it would cost less and come with no restrictions on replanting. But Smith’s paper made the case that it’s in everyone’s best interest to continue planting crops with protected seeds.