The university as an open laboratory.

Author:Birx, Donald L.


The greatest challenges facing the education and research community today revolve around the issues of a quality education, funding, relevance, and return on investment. National concerns are often focused on how to unlock the potential of universities and the investments being made to effectively put research into practice, while creating an entrepreneurial workforce that can lead an economic renaissance. In the previous paper, we explored the implications and potential of organizing a university's research processes around challenge-based, interdisciplinary teams or research clusters. Research clusters were defined as flexible and inclusive, team-based, interdisciplinary research structures that encompass faculty members, centers and departments, and community partners (including other universities); they are focused on common themes or broad focus areas inspired by major 21st century challenges.

In this paper, the emphasis is on the implementation of those ideas to catalyze and orient a university or college to become a partnered open laboratory across divergent disciplines (from the arts to engineering and humanities to medicine).

The open-laboratory concept, as detailed here, is the actualization of research clusters in the creation of an integrative learning and research environment. In an open laboratory, the processes of education and research come together in a seamless path, from discovery to implementation. Every effort is made to reduce barriers between research and practice, industry and academia, and learning and doing. The open laboratory's focus is on solving a set of pressing challenges in a way that furthers the creation of basic knowledge, develops a community of entrepreneurial knowledge builders and users, and drives regional economic development. Open laboratories are made of research clusters that incorporate students (undergraduate and graduate), faculty members, industry researchers, and potentially consultants, federal laboratories, and others working together as a synergistic team with multiple sources of funding and themed objectives.

Research colleges and universities, in collaboration with industry and government, are tackling some of the most challenging issues of society. The open-laboratory provides research administrators with a framework to address and discuss some of the greatest challenges that universities and industry are facing. Many universities have implemented elements of the open-laboratory approach very successfully, but as simple as it sounds, significant barriers to implementation (on and off the university campus) of open-laboratory concepts occur, due to traditional university and industry frameworks. Often these undertakings are core facility-based and are relegated to facilities that are outside of the traditional educational process (at least for undergraduates, e.g., science centers, institutes, applied research laboratories and experiment stations, etc.). In the context of this paper, an open laboratory integrates community partnerships and the entire educational process in a way that enhances both basic and applied research.

The university as an open laboratory begins with the roots of both the land-grant ideal and university-based applied research laboratories. Land-grant institutions were created through the Morrill Act in 1862 and founded on the concepts of hands-on research and a timely application methodology. The faculty, students, and scientists worked together to solve problems, with no separation between basic and applied research. As Pasteur proclaimed, "there is not pure science and applied science but only science and the applications of science" (Stokes, p. 2). The university as an open laboratory concept extends and broadens the land-grant concepts (university-wide) to the 21st century challenges of transforming the economies in which universities are situated, and creating a more relevant educational environment for students.

Land-grant institutions have had a tremendous impact on the agricultural productivity of the United States. Founded in 1862, when the population was growing and farm productivity was stagnant or decreasing, these institutions were key elements in transforming the agricultural landscape (and the industrial economy) around the world (Renne, 1960). In 1860, agriculture required approximately 55% of the workforce (Gallman & Weiss, 1969). As of 2010, just 2-3% of the U.S. workforce was employed in farming. With regard to industrial development, the United States went from exporting slightly more than 20% of the finished goods it imported (1860), to exporting 7.5 times what it imported (1945), and back to exporting less than 50% of what it is importing (2010) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012; Carteret al., 2006).

Touring the historical archives of any of the land-grant institutions, one often runs across pictures of students and faculty members working alongside farmers in the field to solve the problems of disease, blight, and productivity. This problem-solving practice was hands-on training at its best. The mechanics curriculum of the new economy was created by the students and faculty members who were solving the challenges of the use and development of new machinery that powered the industrial and agricultural economy. The concept of agricultural and engineering extension is a potent element of the open-laboratory concept detailed in this paper extended to include the entire university academic community. It should be noted that these ideas were not confined to the United States. Internationally, the University of Twente, founded in the Netherlands in a dying textile region during the 1960s, was based on similar concepts and brought about a remarkable economic transformation of the region, while building a strong cadre of entrepreneurs in nano- and micro-materials and devices (Eijkel, n.d.).

Historically, universities have played a pivotal role in bringing new ideas and research into practice, while training students that could carry on the process of discovery, innovation, and invention in society at large. This has not been a uniform process. At times, boundaries between basic and applied research have been blurred (particularly during times of crisis or national challenge), and universities, government, and industry came together to form synergistic and entrepreneurial teams with astonishing results. At other times, the efforts seem to flounder, compartmentalize, and become tangled in ownership issues and bureaucratic processes, while the challenges grew ever more complex.


Environment and Rationale for an Open-Laboratory Approach to Research

After World War II and the stunning success of science and technology evolution, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vannevar Bush sought to sustain the momentum of discovery and technology development during peacetime (Stokes, 1997). The result of their efforts was the implementation of a doctrine that espoused the separation of basic and applied research and a linear process from discovery to implementation. While this linear process was not the typical practice during wartime, not the approach most responsible for the success of those wartime efforts, Vannevar Bush asserted that "applied research invariably drives out pure" (Bush, 1945).

The authors suggest that the separation between basic and applied research is a false dichotomy that has weakened the pursuit of basic research as well as applications to practice over time. One has to look no further than the collapse of basic research centers at large corporations in the 1980s and 1990s. Decades earlier, an effort was made to prevent applied research from driving out pure; leading corporations, government agencies, and laboratories separated basic research from applied research. Basic research was to be conducted without regard to how it could be applied. Arguably, some of the corporate basic research infrastructure collapsed, because researchers became starved for funding that would have been provided by the results of applied research.

In 2013, this is occurring on an international scale, as limited resources from stagnant economies are leading to questions about the value of a university education and constraints on basic research funding. Increasing pressure is placed on universities and national laboratories, two of the last refuges of basic research, to show applications of basic research. The authors suggest that this worldwide phenomenon might have occurred because too little research had gone into practice to fund the growing investment in basic research. The global economies that are growing in the developing world are those that have been successful at translating the basic and applied research of developed countries into useful technologies. There is a growing awareness that, as the catch-up process is completed, a way must be found to orchestrate the innovation of new technology development in concert with basic research discoveries.

There was a time when the United States was known for Yankee ingenuity and possessed the bravado to think that that every project attempted would eventually be successful eventually (NASA History, 1962). A president could state that the country was going to send someone to the moon and back within a decade, - and it happened; when Detroit, Michigan, represented the pinnacle, not the nadir of U.S. industrial inventiveness; when almost half of the U.S. populace worked on creating and making things, and finished products outnumbered U.S. imports seven to one (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012; & Carter, Gartner, Haines, Olmstead, Sutch, & Wright et al., 2006); when we cured disease, not just sustained perpetual patients, and it appeared as if pharmaceutical growth to treat disease would be exponential, not flat. Policy-driven bureaucracies were not so risk adverse; growth seemed limitless, as did educational opportunities and a secure job for everyone after...

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