Not just “Discovery to Product” (D2P), but also “Knowledge to Action” (K2A)

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

You may have noticed that I just coined a phrase there: “Knowledge to Action” or K2A.  Go ahead and search for it online; you’ll find it being used for everything from stock trading firms to White House “big data” initiatives.  Why do I think we need to claim a new meaning for that acronym here?  I fear that the D2P language is freighted with a whole set of specific assumptions about the kinds of university research innovations that are commercially viable: technological artifacts, industrial processes, chemical formulas, genetic codes, and computer algorithms that are easily morselized as intellectual property, easily commodified into exchangeable units of monetary value, and easily promoted to consumers as concrete examples of “success” for a public research university like UW-Madison.  But these are not the only kinds of knowledge innovations that I and my many, many colleagues produce, whether in the science, medicine, and technology fields, or in the arts, humanities, and social sciences disciplines.  We also produce drama and narrative.  We produce analysis and polemic.  We produce visionary leaps of imagination and empathetic examples of compassion that are rendered not in formulas or bits, but in words and sounds and images.  And we produce arguments, arguments, and more arguments — anthropological arguments about what we share in terms of the human condition, economic arguments about how to achieve the “good life,” historical arguments about where we’ve been in years past, and sociological arguments about where the next generations are taking us tomorrow.

In short, we “discover” every day in countless ways that aren’t easily reducible to “product,” and thus aren’t easily adopted as profitable ventures by the market.  It’s a different kind of marketplace that these “discoveries” nurture: the marketplace of ideas.

But fortunately our economy is made up of more than just the for-profit sector for such discoveries.  Our economy, and our society, includes a vibrant and amazingly efficient and effective non-profit sector at scales from the local to the global.  (The recently-created UW-Madison Center for Nonprofits, mentioned above, is a great resource here, as is our venerable Morgridge Center for Public Service.) It is here that many of our most profound and impactful “discoveries” take root and are operationalized into concrete gains for the public, from new ways of communicating with respect across divides of class, race, gender, and age, to new ways of understanding life and death across divides of culture, language, and history.  As one colleague recently reminded me, the scope of non-profit mission-based work in these areas is breathtaking: “some non-profits will preserve dying languages, others will develop products for use in low income communities, others will help girls enhance their self-confidence.”  While this work might not generate profits for private owners — or return surplus revenue to the university — it definitely does have a positive economic impact on communities.  In a 2010 report, the Wisconsin Arts Board pegged the economic contribution of the non-profit arts and culture industry in Wisconsin at over half a billion dollars.  Education is another example: our School of Education and our School of Library and Information Studies have long nurtured relationships with Wisconsin public schools and public libraries (the non-profit educational agencies of local government), whose contribution to workforce development is essential.  All across the protected space of the research university — where intellectual freedom is supposed to outweigh instrumental pressures of budgets and sales — it is often through the channels of such non-profit activism that art is brought to the public sphere, that evidence is mustered for public debate, and that “market failures” are addressed for the most vulnerable and voiceless of our populations.

In other words, non-profit partnerships are a key way that we move from Knowledge to Action — K2A.

Yet I fear that today our university’s ability and willingness to collaborate with and contribute to this vibrant non-profit sector is under profound threat.

Let me offer an example.  A few years ago my own School of Journalism and Mass Communication set up a collaboration with the non-profit, non-partisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.  We both share the mission of training the investigative reporters of the future.  Furthermore, our School’s mission of research into new models for public-interest media within a capitalist representative democracy dovetails well with the Center’s mission to bring high-quality reporting without charge to the people of the state.  We hammered out an agreement that basically exchanges access to a few small offices in Vilas Hall by the Center for access to professional reporting expertise and high-quality paid internships for our students.  We thus set up a pathway for K2A, “Knowledge to Action” — linking the research and teaching in our School directly to the provision of high-quality reporting for the people of the state — through an innovative collaboration with a non-profit organization.

And then suddenly, last summer, we were told by the state legislature that such an arrangement was illegal.

The full saga of our public relations and political battle to save this collaboration has been recounted elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t go into it again.  The point is that we were only able to hold on to this innovative collaboration through the last-minute goodwill of a Governor’s line-item veto.  While the UW-Madison faculty, staff, and administration did indeed stand by our project all the way up to the Chancellor’s office, in the months since that summer I have heard several colleagues tell me that the university has shied away from approving new non-profit collaborations with campus units.  Whether that anecdotal evidence points to a “chilling effect” or not, there is certainly no comparable, high-profile, and well-funded effort to help faculty, staff, and student knowledge production get out into the world through these non-profit paths, as there is with Discovery to Product in the for-profit sector.

In fact, the same state legislature that proposed the dissolution of our non-profit investigative journalism collaboration seems to embrace D2P with open arms as the canonical example of the Wisconsin Idea.

The problem here is not the assertion that D2P is a key part of the Wisconsin Idea; the problem is the assumption that D2P represents the entirety of the Wisconsin Idea.  It does not, and, moreover, it should not.  Inevitably, some portion of the knowledge that is produced in an evidence-based, diverse, and dedicated public research university will be not only unprofitable, but also uncomfortable.  Sometimes it involves the investigation of people and groups who would rather not be investigated, including those in the private sector.  Sometimes it points to problems of environmental, labor, or social justice that cannot easily be remedied by a new product, a technological fix, or the hidden hand of the market.  Sometimes it makes convincing claims that progress and problems can actually go hand-in-hand in a frustrating dance, benefiting some while disadvantaging others, meaning that with each new “discovery” and “product,” tough questions about rights and responsibilities will remain.

Nurturing “Knowledge to Action” through the non-profit sector is not just a different way of ensuring that innovations get out into the wild; it is often these very kinds of non-market but evidence-based interventions in the world that help us contextualize and evaluate the long-term and often uneven effects of for-profit “Discovery to Product” innovations in the first place.

So my plea is that every time we promote the benefits of “D2P,” every time we allocate seed funding for more “Discovery to Product” projects from our precious, limited reserves of dollars and time, we must also steward the complementary pathway to the Wisconsin Idea, “K2A,” helping to promote “Knowledge to Action” through similarly effective and efficient non-profit partnerships — partnerships outside of the market which nevertheless also bring our special excellence in research, scholarship, creativity, innovation, and, yes, discovery, to the public.