About a month ago, UW-Madison announced a new initiative: “Discovery to Product,” shorthanded as “D2P”. From the official web site:
The initiative is intended to provide UW–Madison faculty and students with an easy-to-access gateway to a comprehensive suite of resources to help transform ideas and discovery into companies and products to bolster Wisconsin’s economy.
This kind of effort, understood both here and at other universities as falling under the broad concept of “technology transfer,” sets the public research university in a particular relationship with both its sponsoring state government and its private market environment. The idea is that the innovations that emerge from the public research university — whose people and infrastructure are financed by a $2.8 billion mix of funds from citizen tax dollars (17%), individual tuition payments (16%), competitive grant awards (31%), philanthropic gifts (18%), and revenue-generating enterprises (13%), among other sources — should have both public impacts and private benefits beyond the reach of the campus. Bringing these innovations to market is supposed to generate three positive results:
- For innovations that can be moved to the private sector — as a new startup company delivering a particular service, or as a new bit of intellectual property licensed as a temporary patent, say — the assumption is that the market is the most efficient way for the innovation to have a quick and profound impact on society. In the case of medical devices or new drug therapies, for example, speeding interventions to vulnerable populations is an important public health goal. (Incidentally, this is the mission of the non-profit Morgridge Institute for Research, a formal partner with the UW-Madison Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.)
- State sponsors of higher education hope that through the participation of private capital, there will be spin-off benefits of economic growth in the form of new firms, new jobs, new development, new revenue to shareholders, and — from the state’s point of view — new sources of tax revenue and community stability. So as a public research university sponsored by a particular state and situated in a particular city and county, UW-Madison is obliged to do what it can to help nurture the economic environment upon which it depends and from which it benefits.
- And finally, it is usually expected that some portion of the resulting private profit will return to the university itself, through licensing arrangements, to fund further research in the future — even providing a “cross-subsidy” to forms of research that aren’t as economically lucrative, such as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. (And the sponsoring state may hope that the resulting surplus can reduce its own funding burden even more.)
Here at UW-Madison, this “discovery to product” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has long been mediated by a particular actor, the non-profit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF. WARF was founded in the 1920s to bring UW-Madison professor Harry Steenbock’s Vitamin D process to market. But as UW-Madison professor Rima Apple has shown in her history of WARF’s founding, the motivation for creating this outside organization was not only to capture licensing revenues for future UW research, but also to ensure that Vitamin D was produced responsibly and safely (and in a way that protected the Wisconsin dairy industry). Along these lines, here at UW-Madison, the “D2P” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has been guided by a particular normative ideal, which we call the Wisconsin Idea, or “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.” So today our D2P efforts are being coordinated through WARF and branded under the Wisconsin Idea.
Such a D2P initiative is exciting and well-intentioned. But I have a concern about it that comes from my own experience as both a faculty member and a department chair here at UW-Madison — and from recent conversations with campus colleagues in places as diverse as the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, the Madison Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America, and the Center for Nonprofits. I believe it takes nothing away from the importance and urgency of this new “Discovery to Product” effort to realize that, at the same time, not all discoveries result in products, and not all impacts of the public research university can (or should) flow through the market. What’s more, the very political-economic environment which makes the D2P route so attractive to university, state, and market actors may at the same time be making it harder for knowledge innovations to get “out in the wild” through a different but equally important channel: the non-profit sector.
I argue that besides “Discovery to Product” in the for-profit sector, UW-Madison and its many stakeholders need to support “Knowledge to Action” in the non-profit sector.