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Corporate Connections in Higher Ed Endanger Academia

In today’s dismal economic climate, anything receiving government funding must justify its worth. This includes institutions of higher education, which must prove a tangible return on the funding they receive. So, what is the best way to prove your worth as an institution? Create jobs and growth. This solution, however, has sparked a debate about whether institutions of academic research should become engines for job creation and economic growth.

In his February address on the state of Entrepreneurship in America, President and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation Carl Schramm said, “University technology licensing practices should be improved so that university-generated innovation — typically funded by the federal government — is more quickly and efficiently commercialized … taking innovations from the laboratory to the market place is essential to unleashing the economic power and potential of these innovations.” There is no doubt that university innovation can be directly related to job growth, but it is important to consider the negative implications that can arise when an academic institution becomes intimately involved with a for-profit corporation.

Research has always been an essential function of academic institutions, offering students important opportunities to learn and innovate. The Texas Tribune reports that “publicly there appears to be near unanimity in support of the broad concept of academic research, especially as it relates to the business environment.” But this connection to business can be very dangerous.

Case in point: This past December, Professor of Geosciences Terry Engelder made an unprecedented discovery. He calculated there were around 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be sustainably recovered in the Marcellus shale field of the northeastern United States. His discovery has the potential to propel Pennsylvania to the level of Texas in the energy industry. Through his research at Penn State, Engelder created an entirely new sector for economic growth in Pennsylvania, exactly what Schramm called for in his speech on entrepreneurship. Engelder’s discovery is certainly a justification for investing in academic research.

Dan Voltz, formerly a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, challenged the idea that this process endorsed by Engelder — commonly called hydrofracking — was an environmentally responsible way to remove the gas reserves in the Marcellus shale fields. “If these wastewater treatment plants were accepting their total allotment of oil and gas waste they would be putting something of the order of 800,000 pounds of solids into the river a day and this would include tons and tons of strontium, bromium and barium.”

What began as an honest academic disagreement became mendacious when Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences released an economics report detailing the potential for economic growth that would be achieved by collecting the gas. The report painted drilling as an obvious choice and suggested that taxation or regulation of the new industry could stymie growth. As it turned out, the report had been funded by a group of oil and gas companies eager to collect the rich resource of the shale field.

Institutions of higher education hold a unique place in society. They are dedicated to furthering understanding and are respected as unbiased evaluators of world events. I agree with Schramm that university technology can be an impetus for growth. However, we must not sacrifice the long-term academic credibility of our colleges and universities for short-term monetary returns.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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