When Hayes-Roth began her research a decade ago, interactive media was in its infancy and the Web-where most of her characters reside-didn’t even exist. But her research interests drew the support of the Advanced Research Projects Agency and a host of corporations; over time the commercial relevance of her work became overwhelming. For years she stood firm, limiting her consulting and some years confining her work to academia. Last year, she decided to scale back her duties at Stanford and devote more time to a company she’s launched to commercialize intelligent agent software.
The shift came easily, she says. “In academia, you’re already a kind of entrepreneur. You’re creating ideas and bringing in the resources to make your research possible.” The only difference, she adds, is that “in the university, we sell our idea before we make it and outside we sell it after we make it.”
This alliance of industry and academia would seem to bring wide benefits, yet it’s deeply troubling to people wedded to older models of how universities should interact with the private sector. And to be sure, there are at least two big dangers in the industry’s growing reliance on professors. As they become more profit-driven, academics threaten to undermine one of the hallmarks of a liberal education: the largely unfettered exchange of ideas. While intellectual property claims remain the exception rather than the rule, it isn’t absurd to imagine that, at least in some scientific and technical fields, one professor will have to pay a royalty simply to read another’s published findings.
Then there’s industry’s emphasis on technologies that are fast and cheap. If one thing separates university researchers from those in corporations, it’s the academic’s insistence on pursuing solutions that are interesting-without regard to efficiency. “I always like to see a research project hung on a problem, but then I don’t like to see any constraints on how the problem is pursued,” says Michael Lynch, an applied mathematician at the U.K.’s University of Cambridge. Even though Lynch has formed two successful software companies while a professor, he worries about the tendency of academics to become midwives to industry. “The danger is that we kill the golden goose because we ask it to lay too many eggs,” he says.
These concerns are quite real, but the fact is that the Ivory Tower has fallen, and its pieces, like Humpty Dumpty’s, can’t be put back together again in the same way.
Just ask Craig Barret. In the early 1970s Barret was a rising star at Stanford, a PhD in materials science. One summer Intel came knocking, asking for a student to help sift through a problem with the ceramic packaging around one of the company’s new chips. On a lark, Barret offered himself. He quickly solved the problem and was hooked. Recently, he was named Intel’s CEO, succeeding Andrew Grove.