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CEDAR RAPIDS — Those looking for a “silver bullet” to Iowa’s higher education funding crisis won’t find it in the commercialization of university research, Iowa State and University of Iowa leaders said Friday.
Rather, the primary aim of those intellectual pursuits — including potential moneymaking discoveries that might lead to new drugs, medical procedures, agricultural efficiencies, and laboratory devices — remains altruistic.
“The whole rationale is to get ideas out into practice, or at least to expose them to society in ways that people can explore,” UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Daniel Reed said during The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference Friday.
“It’s really a continuation of attempting to help society via another mechanism — the same way we do with education. The same way we do with technology transfer. The same way we do with societal engagement,” Reed said. “It’s about trying to build a better world.”
But with the public universities struggling to absorb more than $30 million in cuts to its base state appropriations — inflicted during the last legislative session — dreaming about a technology transfer “home run” can be tempting, the universities conceded Friday.
“If it was $6 trillion, trust me, it would help tuition dramatically,” said Mike Crum, Iowa State University’s vice president for economic development and business engagement.
But don’t hold your breath.
“It’s not going to subsidize, nor should it subsidize, the entire university operation,” Crum said. “It, unfortunately, is not going to solve the more fundamental funding problem.”
The universities have, over the years, generated revenue through commercialized discoveries — via patents, licenses or copyrights.
Iowa State, for example, has received tens of millions in royalties for developing lead-free solder technology used in computers, mobile devices and other electric systems. About 20 percent of the world’s seedless watermelons come from a germ plasm developed at Iowa State.
UI likewise has reported stellar technology transfer years. In 2009 and 2010, for instance, one patent bumped up income totals to $46.3 million and $31.4 million, respectively.
But those boons are not the rule, Reed said.
He noted national research indicating 84 percent of all university technology transfer offices lose money. Consider 2014 for the UI’s office, which saw income at $4.9 million but expenses at $6.6 million.
Researchers do sign agreements when they join a university faculty — essentially signing over the rights to any discoveries they make during their employment involving university resources. Any royalties are divided between the inventor, his or her college or department, and the research and economic development office and foundation.
But technology transfer windfalls are so rare, the universities’ research administrators have to remind their faculty to let them know about patentable ideas — highlighting the altruistic mission of their endeavors, according to Crum.
And the universities don’t seek royalties from university students who might dream up a new technology for a class project.
“We have chosen, at least to date, not to get between a student and their (intellectual property),” Crum said.
Neither UI nor ISU have plans to change that, Crum and Reed told The Gazette.
Still, the pressure to patent and amass royalties exists — because the funding for research that leads to discovery is becoming harder to come by. Both Iowa State and UI in the 2017 budget year, for example, saw declines in federal support for research and scholarship.
The UI brought in $224.4 million in federal funding, down from $240.3 million in 2016. Iowa State saw its $229.5 million in 2016 drop to $218.9 million.
That’s why — although major technology transfer winners could help an entire university campus — campuses want to plant the money back into the ground that grew it.
“That’s where we see a real gap, both from the outside and inside, is those great ideas that, for lack of resources, just don’t get a chance to grow,” Crum said.