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Research - Embracing Industry

Forging strong relationships with industry is the best way to keep a research program thriving.

Douglas M. Green

Not so long ago, most industrial firms' involvement with engineering schools was limited to a few activities: hiring our graduates, occasionally funding research projects, and sometimes donating funds from their foundations. But industry partners have much more to offer to universities, and educators are descending a few flights of the ivory tower to embrace the new realities of engineering research.
Illustration by Cameron Clement 

The most significant challenge to any engineering school is remaining relevant to the profession, a quest that is challenging enough during times of relative stability. Today, with the engineering profession undergoing dramatic changes on many fronts-including less predictable employment patterns, increasing internationalization, shifting funding opportunities, broader intellectual alliances, reduced job security, and changing accreditation expectations-remaining relevant is even more difficult.

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Sharing the Wheel

Increasing numbers of department chairs are now following the lead of engineering deans by relying on industrial advisory committees. In industry, sound strategic planning can make the difference between staying in business or going bankrupt. These committees are therefore well-qualified to help departments develop a road map for research initiatives that will fall in the mainstream of future technological demand. One of the best crystal balls you will find is multiple firms agreeing on which undeveloped technologies are most important.

Technological firms' strategic acumen is not lost on the single largest bankroller of university research: the U.S. government. Most engineering schools still receive the majority of their research support from Washington, and the federal funding agencies are giving more and more credence to industry trends when determining what gets funded. A research proposal submitted by the school stands a better chance of acceptance if the industrial advisory committee swears allegiance to the endeavor.

Conversely, it is in technological firms' self-interest to share some part of their long- term (pre-competitive) strategy with the university community, because most firms have reduced the amount of basic research they perform in-house. University-led  industrial consortia provide a common ground on which firms can periodically share and refine their pre-competitive research strategies. Universities benefit by having input to these strategic discussions; more important, the school gains access to the cutting-edge thinking of the industrial partners.

Relevance Revolution

Industry can also assist schools' accreditation efforts. Engineering Criteria 2000 has two basic parts: it gives each engineering school the opportunity to define its own unique mission, and it requires that each school assess the outcomes of its educational process, determine if it is meeting its own objectives, and take corrective actions if necessary.

Those who spend every day on the industrial battlefield are ideally positioned to help a department define its mission in a way that is relevant to the business world that most engineering graduates will enter. Industry also has a great deal of experience assessing outcomes, and can suggest effective assessment mechanisms to assist academic departments. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's open invitation to innovate gives all schools the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, since successful programs will undoubtedly be emulated elsewhere.

As engineering faculty members, we cannot be satisfied with just keeping up with the changes taking place around us. We owe it to our students to anticipate their career needs and to prepare them to meet the evolving demands of our profession. The best predictive model for the educational and research needs of the engineering profession of the future will draw on information and wisdom from many quarters. We must dedicate ourselves to constant communication with our colleagues in government, other universities, accrediting agencies, the K-12 community, and, especially, with industry.

The cultures of industry and academics are clearly different. The first step in bridging these two cultures is open communication and a genuine attempt to understand both points of view.  Developing strong industrial ties is a contact sport that requires time and dedication, but the return on this investment is well worth it.

Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins. The opinions in this article are solely his own.



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