SP politicians Daan Brandenberg and Sandra Beckerman (B&B), in their piece Is the RUG becoming a Coca-Cola University?, plead against collaboration between universities and companies. But it’s exactly those visionary and wealthy companies that are willing to take risks, such as Tesla, that are working on the largest societal issues of this day and age.
American universities have already found their way to Tesla’s capital, means, and societal impact. The RUG should follow their lead!
Unfortunately, fact-free politics run rampant in B&B’s article. While the university is striving for more intense collaboration with the business world by appointing a dean of industry relations, the SP pair pleads ‘that the university reconsider their chummy connections with businesses’. Collaboration, so they claim, would not lead to better answers and questions and would only cause science to stagnate.
The right questions
As the Elon Musk and Tesla example shows, this is nonsense.
When he was a student, Musk struggled to find meaning in his life. After searching through philosophical and religious literature, he got an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this book, a supercomputer is asked to answer the question of what the meaning of life is.
After millions of years, the following, incomprehensible answer followed: ‘42’. Musk concluded that asking the right questions is one of the most difficult things in life.
He wanted to focus on the things that would have the largest impact on mankind’s future: the internet, energy transition, and colonising space.
B&B ask, ‘Are universities and the government so lacking in vision that they have to go to businesses to find the right research topics?’
Our counterpoint to that: Are universities so visionary that they can afford to ignore the questions being posed by visionary entrepreneurs?
After his student years, Musk founded two IT companies which he turned around and sold for a ton of money. Musk used that cash to dive into the second question: the energy transition and, more specifically, electric vehicles.
The creation of an affordable electric car proved to be a costly and risky endeavor, and in 2007, it more or less failed. After some developmental and organizational mistakes, Musk was only able to save the company by firing everyone who was directly involved and pouring all of his money into it.
After a few years of recovery, Tesla gets listed on the stock market. Many investors are prepared to provide capital for Tusk’s risky, loss-making yet visionary long-term project.
B&B says, ‘The initial phase of developing a new product is especially precarious, expensive and risky. Businesses prefer to keep risk to themselves low.’
This example proves the opposite: businesses are actually perfectly prepared to develop new products and take risks.
One of the founders and board members of Tesla, JB Straubel, says that the idea for a better electric car came to him via the World Solar Challenge. In this corporate-sponsored competition, business and university teams race each other – in solar-powered vehicles.
Straubel says that many of Tesla’s first employees came from that competition, and that Tesla gained – and contributed to – valuable knowledge from the Solar Challenge. To this day, Tesla maintains connections with Stanford University: their headquarters are located at a research park that belongs to Stanford and Straubel also teaches there.
But can independent research be guaranteed when collaborating with businesses? Involved corporations steering the results in a certain direction must be prevented and actively fought against. This also counts for the financing of chair positions: if Coca-Cola were to offer to pay for a Chair of Health Benefits of Soda, the university must be willing to decline.
It is important to be transparent about the vested interests, benefits and risks. But not only must it be made clear to those involved what the benefits of collaboration are: why they are beneficial is necessary information, too.
Only if these conditions are met can the two worlds of such a partnership learn from one another. There are many more small and large company besides Tesla who are eager to contribute to research. Give them the space to do it, so that scientific research can find its place in the real world and so that researchers and businesses can work together to answer the questions for tomorrow.
Eelco Luurtsema, student and faction member of VVD Groningen (City)
Jasper Honkoop, council member of VVD Groningen
Previous editorials on this topic:
Is the RUG becoming a Coca-Cola university?: Daan Brandenbarg and Sandra Beckerman
No pain, no gain: applied physics professor Jeff Th. M. De Hosson