2008/02/11

Part II: Virtual Research University for The New North

This is the second post of a multi-part look at the mutual benefits between a research university and the region 'around' that university. For Part I of this series, see Benefits of Research Universities to Regional Innovation.

A date has been set -- 18 February 2008 -- for the first 'official' meeting to develop virtual research university resources for the New North (18 counties of northeast Wisconsin, USA).

The 18 February meeting will involve participants from the New North (NN) and Michigan Technological University (MTU) and will be held in Houghton, Michigan, USA. There is a winter job fair at Michigan Tech on 19 February, so it seemed appropriate to have the NN/MTU meeting the day before the job fair. This will leverage the presence of New North companies who are on campus to participate in the job fair or who might be interested in going up to Houghton to check out the job fair.

The initial meeting is designed to be an informal discussion about the concept of developing virtual research university resources that will benefit both the New North and Michigan Tech. Discussion between representatives of the New North and Michigan Tech on this topic will be valuable because:
  1. There are not widely known models to follow for this type of collaboration.
  2. The meeting will serve as 'market research' to help understand what benefits each group needs to make the relationship worth developing and maintaining.
Two concepts for the meeting participants to keep in mind during the meeting are:
  1. Research universities are often primary drivers of innovation in the region surrounding the university.
  2. Previous research into the innovation and economic impact of universities suggests the impact of those universities is negligible outside a 15 or 50 mile radius, with the distance and impact varying depending on which study you read.
The first concept above is important for the 18 February meeting because the bulk of the meeting should focus on those factors which cause a research university to drive innovation in the region it serves. These factors involve spin-out of intellectual property (IP), mentoring or leading of start-up companies by entrepreneurial research faculty, the cultural draw universities create for entrepreneurs, etc. There are also resources a non-research university offers to a region which are not necessarily regional innovation drivers, such as college-degree graduates for the labor force. It will be beneficial for New North meeting participants to understand everything Michigan Tech has to offer to the New North, but the primary focus of this meeting is innovation drivers that come from research universities.

The second concept above is important because we need to be aware of how distance between a region and a research university can influence the impact of the innovation drivers. If we understand that, we can identify which drivers are likely to have the most impact in spite of Green Bay being 211 miles from Houghton. If we understand why the primary economic influence of a university in the past has been geographically limited, we can target which research university resources will most likely have an impact across ~200 miles and which ones will likely be made more effective through appropriate use of remote collaboration and communication tools which didn't exist three to five years ago. It is likely many studies about geographical limitations of university economic impact were done before the development of internet tools that made the knowledge economy possible and enabled internet nomad workers to do their jobs well from anywhere they can find a reliable high-speed connection to the web.

Three additional resources I'd like to pull into this equation are:
  1. The National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure and people working with them to develop tools for "Building Effective Virtual Organizations."
  2. The University of Michigan and others investigating "The Role of Engaged Universities in Economic Transformation."
  3. People participating effectively in "open source science."
The NN/MTU relationship will be worthwhile only if we develop an effective virtual organization to facilitate collaboration between individuals at Michigan Tech and companies in the New North. The collaboration will produce ten or twenty times more innovation if there's an effective virtual organization than if the interactions occur haphazardly and are left to the initiative of individual people in the NN or at MTU. Today's status quo is what the individual initiative approach has resulted in. An effective virtual organization is needed to make the relationship between the NN and research universities produce more innovation.

The University of Michigan involvement in "the role of engaged universities in economic transformation" addresses three questions pertinent to this NN/MTU collaboration:
  1. How does a state or region that has had its economic focus on manufacturing transform itself into one based on a knowledge economy that maintains a complementarity to its traditional base.
  2. What elements define the significant role of research universities (and of higher education in general) of the state or region in effecting and being engaged in such a transition?
  3. What incisive collaborative steps must be taken as part of state or regional initiatives and university strategies to catalyze this transition?
Lastly, we need to involve people who are knowledgeable about benefits of and effective techniques for "open source science." It was made clear during my participation in the January 2008 NSF workshop on "Building Effective Virtual Organizations" that research scientists are, for the most part, extremely adverse to sharing knowledge about their research prior to publication of fully developed and documented knowledge. Their pay, promotions, and recognition from peers is largely based on how much exclusive knowledge they generate. For there to be a truly collaborative relationship between the New North and faculty or student researchers at a research university, there will need to be appropriate incentives for those researchers to work with and openly share information with companies in the New North. There needs to be benefits not only for the companies of the New North, but also academic benefits to those researchers involved in the collaboration.

Members of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, a large number of Michigan Tech alumni living in the New North and some other key representatives from the New North have been invited to this meeting. We don't know if we'll have ten people or a hundred people at the meeting, but I'm sure it will be interesting and worthwhile no matter how many people show up.

The 18 February meeting will not answer all the questions. It won't even provide time to ask all the questions pertinent to this topic. But it will be a good start toward the long-term regional innovation goal of building effective collaborative relationships between the New North and research universities.

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