Industry and academic collaboration in Net studies

We’ve got representatives from Cisco (UK) and Freeserve here at the Oxford Internet Institute’s summer programme today to talk about how collaboration can and should work between industry and academics.  It’s a topic that we’ve thought a lot about at the Berkman Center, as we see such partnerships as holding out substantial promise.  For instance, we’ve worked closely with researchers at Gartner|G2 this year on digital media matters, with positive results and an exciting plan for moving forward.  But we’re also focused on avoiding the obvious potential problems with such arrangements.

“Links with faculties are among the keys to our success,” says a gentleman from Cisco (UK).  Why do they spend money on research collaboration with universities? “It’s enlightened self-interest.”  He went well out of his way to ensure that we knew that none of the partners permitted any meddling in results by Cisco, and that it was as it should be.  He discussed in some detailed the much-celebrated Cisco Networking Academy program, quoting Prof. Michael Porter of HBS on the primacy of this project.

Freeserve’s executive, Dr Norman Lewis, actually the Director of Technology Research at Wanadoo, said that research with universities is “near and dear to my heart.”  He started with the idea of innovation and the need to fight against technological determinism, a struggle in which university partners can be quite helpful to industry.  They’re involved in supporting the World Internet Project.  He worries about cutbacks by industry in long-term research during leaner times.  Those companies that can leverage 20 or 30 years of long-term research are the pathbreakers, he contends.  He suggests, with real passion, that universities ought to create their own agenda and pursue unique research and new insight — resisting agenda-setting by corporate interests.  “The pursuit of knowledge without fear or favor,” he says, should be the mantra for university researchers.  Sounds just right to me.

Things got more exciting during the question period, though.  Dr Lewis took issue with the direction of the academy generally and with the training that students are getting (“it’s terrible,” he says) before they head out into the workforce.  It’s hard to know precisely what heated things up, but it likely had something to do with his critique of what he described as the unfortunate political imperative of putting too many forms of knowledge on equal footing as one another.  So much comes back to a question of funding, everyone agreed, whether coming from the government or industry, and what requirements come along with the use of those funds.

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