Research at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences spans interdisciplinary academic areas and relies on collaboration with organizations outside the university, including for-profit partners.
While some faculty and students point to the benefits of corporate partnerships, others caution that working with for-profit entities requires balancing ethical risks and educational rewards.
Ellie Carlough, who leads SEAS’ collaboration with the private sector, said her position as Director of Industry Partnerships was created by SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III, who she said emphasized “the value of long-term industrial partnerships”.
“The focus on building partnerships is not on fundraising or additional funding for sponsored research, although that is certainly one element,” she said. “The main goals were to create partnerships to support students and faculty.”
Carlough said corporate partnerships provide internship and job opportunities for students, while exposing them to real-world applications of science and engineering.
She hailed Engineering Science 96: “Engineering and Design Problem Solving Project” as an “experiential classroom” that allows students to benefit from the school’s corporate partnerships. Students on the course are tasked with solving a challenge faced by an industry sponsor and receive mentorship from these outside experts.
Samir Mitragotri, a bioengineering professor who taught at ES96 in the fall, said he found SEAS’s collaboration with industry partners educationally rewarding.
“It not only provides benefits in the direction of research, but also a good educational component for students,” Mitragotri said. “A lot of our students, when they graduate, go into the industry, and for them to really have that background as part of their education, I think is very helpful.”
Engineering student Yasmin Omri ’24 also praised CS 148: “VLSI Circuit and System Design.” Her professor partnered with a semiconductor manufacturing plant to “register” the computer chips she and her peers were designing. She called the partnership “motivating” for her work.
“If they hadn’t been able to get a partnership with this company, I think the learning would probably be more theoretical,” she said. “Actual implementation depends on corporate partnerships.”
But Mitragotri recognized a difference between the interests of academics and businesses, which must respond to stakeholders.
“There is an immediate sense of practicality and usefulness” in industrial engineering, Mitragotri said, whereas in academia researchers enjoy “the luxury of asking very open and futuristic questions.” .
SEAS professor James H. Waldo said he had met with industry partners before who had tried to dictate what he would report in his research, but he held his ground.
“Make sure you don’t fall into the ‘Here I have money. Go do something for me, the trap is important,'” Waldo added.
According to Waldo, SEAS has strong ethical guidelines in place to avoid conflicts of interest, but “there is no way to enforce all ethical issues.” He added that researchers have discretion over which private companies they partner with.
“It’s not something for which there is a hard and fast rule,” he said. “It’s something where we have to rely on the good judgment of the academics involved, the industry involved.”
According to university spokesman Jason A. Newton, Harvard’s Office of Technology department puts policies in place to preserve the “integrity” of corporate research partnerships. All search agreements drawn up by OTD set “reasonable limits on the rights granted to partner companies” and refuse to promise specific search results, Newton wrote in an email.
“The research and any resulting intellectual property are provided to the company on an ‘as is’ basis,” he wrote.
Engineers Without Borders, a student organization, also works closely with companies, which provide technical support and help advance the club’s long-term projects.
“Having these businesses and professionals in our network really helps us bring to life all kinds of ideas that we have and really learn from them,” said EWB Co-Chair Omri.
Omri said she hopes the school investigates the “social and environmental responsibilities” of potential industry sponsors before entering into partnerships.
“I hope they are established on an ethical basis,” she said.
—Editor Felicia He can be reached at [email protected]
—Editor James R. Jolin can be reached at [email protected]