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Research

By Michael M. Reischman

Serving the Economy

Using your research to help local industries is service, too.

We tend to think of research in universities as one part of the triumvirate of "teaching, research, and service" in discussing how it contributes to the mission of most institutions. The coupling of teaching and research is evident in several ways, but what of the relationship between research and service? Service is often the weakest element in a faculty member's portfolio. Public service, in particular—traditionally seen as teaching short courses, providing extension services, and performing civic activities—is not viewed as a research-intensive activity. There exists, however, an area of public service where mainstream university research is crucial—the area called economic development.

Engineering faculty members don't always get involved in technology-based enhancement of their local or regional economies. But they should, because more than ever engineers are helping drive job creation and prosperity. For example, developing an advanced measurement technology may increase the productivity of certain manufacturing processes and provide the basis for start-up businesses. To say the least, developing the local economy and nearby industries is not a typical function of colleges and universities. The complexities of combining tech transfer and shared intellectual property has, no doubt, made many people hesitant to pursue closer cooperation. But when engineering professors get involved with the local economy, there are a host of benefits for colleges of engineering, including opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to work in a real-life setting; development of new technology enterprises; and the new, market-driven research.

It takes active participation, however, to build the connection between university research and the local economy. Passive methods—such as research sponsored by local industries, student employment or internships, and technical seminars—are effective but lack focus. Technology expositions often lack attendance and impact. Remember that your involvement and that of your university will be heartily welcomed. Whether attracting new business, initiating technology-based enterprises, or expanding a high-tech startup, the inclusion of university-based assets in research and development can mean the difference between success and failure for many companies.

If you want to be an advocate for getting your school more involved with the local economy, here are some simple steps:

Meet the state Department of Commerce. Invite them to the university, and volunteer to be part of the team enticing new technology business and expanding established ones.

Get to know the local economic development practitioners. Visit with representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce and government, whose interests are more oriented toward startups and expansions of technology businesses, and engage them in university advisory functions, seminars, and lab tours.

Get your colleagues involved. Focus on infusing the college's research and development into the technology marketplace, and encourage entrepreneurship and participation in new business ventures.

Develop a relationship with the business college. Get to know your business-school counterparts and the functions related to entrepreneurship, business planning, and technology management.

Be a player in a high-tech incubator. This is the boldest step. There are lots of working models available, and it's a great way to mix high-tech business, research, and education.

Becoming a real partner in the economic development of your region is relatively simple and may open a whole new vista for faculty, staff, and students. And who knows, the taxpaying public may become one of your most meaningful partners. Wouldn't that put a new slant on service?

Michael M. Reischman is a member of ASEE's Engineering Research Council.

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