Today’s way of life would not exist without breakthroughs made at America’s research universities.
But you wouldn’t know that from the national conversation on higher education that, in recent decades, has focused almost exclusively on the mission of educating students and the climate for undergraduates on university campuses. The crown jewel of America’s innovation infrastructure, our university research enterprise, is increasingly forgotten or misunderstood.
Conceived by Amber D. Miller, dean of USC Dornsife, Public Exchange is designed to reinvigorate collaboration between the university research community and leaders in the public and private sectors. By providing an all-new way to streamline access to subject experts, Public Exchange enables our partners to tap a dizzying range of expertise when grappling with complex problems — in a way that is straightforward, accessible, and affordable.
How did we get here?
Throughout much of the 20th century, research universities were America’s go-to source for expertise. Many of the breakthroughs were rooted in partnerships between research universities and the federal government. An unwritten social contract was established, in which scholars would deliver the scientific knowledge, technologies, and medical treatments that gave America its competitive edge while the public provided tax dollars to support vital research.
During the last few decades of the 20th century, the need for more advanced computer technology and automation gave rise to a new way for universities to work with the private sector. In 1971, Stanford University introduced the tech-transfer model by launching the first Office of Technology Licensing. Focused on marketing innovations in computer science and engineering to technology and biomedical companies, the office made it easy for businesses to access Stanford’s intellectual property. This model was rapidly adopted by research universities across the nation, sparking the technological revolution that has yielded personal electronic devices, life-saving drugs and surgical techniques, and autonomous machines.
Today’s problems are much more varied and complex, affecting different stakeholders in different ways. While tech-transfer remains important, current challenges will not be solved by technological innovations alone. We need expertise from a wide range of highly specialized fields, that does not come in the form of patented inventions.
A new way of thinking
An experience that Miller had working with the New York Police Department gave her an idea for a new way of bringing academic expertise to bear on practical problems.
An experimental astrophysicist at Columbia University, Miller was asked to serve for two years as the N.Y.P.D.’s chief science advisor. The police force didn’t need to understand the Big Bang, but they did need help calibrating and deploying sophisticated technological equipment designed to detect and prevent the use of radiological, chemical, and biological weapons.
Miller imagined the benefit to society if experts across the nation were engaging in similar activities outside the university. Academic researchers, by nature of their training, offer a unique approach to problem-solving. First, they are rigorously trained to define research questions and challenge assumptions, analyze data, and interpret information. Second, they are at the forefront of new knowledge, constantly defining the future direction of their fields.
The kind of serendipitous conversations between a university researcher and a counterterrorism commissioner that led to Miller’s NYPD work are not commonplace. And universities lack the infrastructure to enable civic and business leaders to easily tap the full range of expertise that exists within America’s research universities — not just scientists and engineers, but also the psychologists, economists, political scientists, historians, spatial scientists, and scores of other researchers working across every field.
Making expertise accessible
The seed for Public Exchange™ had been planted. But it wasn’t until 2016, when Miller was appointed dean of USC Dornsife, that she was able to put her vision into action. Miller recruited Kate Weber to serve as the inaugural Executive Director of an office that would be shaped in the coming years into Public Exchange™. As a leader at USAID, Weber had spent many years fostering global partnerships and development projects. She brought distinctive experience and knowledge to oversee construction of an ambitious initiative from the ground up. Weber and Miller spent several years talking to leaders about their needs as well as the challenges that they faced when trying to work with universities. With this thorough understanding, Weber and her team developed standardized agreements and processes, while piloting projects with L.A. City, L.A. County, private companies, and a wide range of organizations to demonstrate proof-of-concept.
Public Exchange emerged as the first-of-its-kind matchmaker and A-to-Z project manager that enables partners working on complex problems to tap the entire spectrum of academic expertise at a world-class research university. A unique combination of expert network and internal consulting firm, Public Exchange helps partners not only to identify the appropriate expertise needed to solve a particular problem, but takes care of the relevant contracts, project management, timelines, etc. to ensure that external partners get input they need in a form they can use.
Miller’s vision is to encourage the expansion of this model to other research universities broadly in the same way that Stanford’s tech transfer model rapidly became the norm in universities across the nation. With widespread adoption, tens of thousands of faculty experts around the country could be engaged to work with leaders outside of academia, helping to solve problems and drive progress.
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