Global Innovative, and Open for Business: The American Research University in the 21st Century (Speech to the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure and honor to be your guest here at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. I had the special honor of being hosted by CAS President Bai Chun Li and former CAS Vice President Chen Zhu—now Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress—for dinner Monday night. Both, by the way, have been awarded University of Minnesota honorary doctorate degrees.

And I was pleased that we were able to sign a memorandum of understanding today to solidify our partnership with CAS. It is an umbrella agreement that includes a previously signed memo of just a few weeks ago. That side agreement makes us partners on research that’s critically important to you here in China and to the rest of the world: the pressing issue of air quality and PM 2.5.

And I think it’s fair to say that among the world’s leading experts on PM 2.5 is Professor David Pui. Professor Pui is a graduate of our university, and has been on the faculty of the University of Minnesota for three decades. And this year Dr. Pui was named a CAS Einstein fellow. He has been traveling across China explaining the challenge of PM 2.5 and offering solutions.

His science stands on the shoulders of other University of Minnesota mechanical engineers, particularly Professor Kenneth Whitby. If you go back to the earlier literature of aerosol analysis and pollutants—back to the 1960s—you will see the groundbreaking work of Whitby, who was a University of Minnesota graduate and then a professor of ours.

His work and that of Dr. Pui helped to drive the establishment of our Center for Filtration Research, a world leader on environmental pollution and in analyzing and seeking solutions to the PM 2.5 challenge. An important feature of the center is the tight connection of the University with industrial partners. This is an example of University-industry interactions that I will discuss later.

Such interactions have many advantages, but perhaps the most important is that they enable the rapid transfer of University of Minnesota results to companies for practical applications for society. This is surely critical to address the challenges of air quality and implementation of PM 2.5.

U and China history

This is just one and a very current part of our history in China, and an initiative that we hope can improve the quality of life here. But Professor Pui’s work also carries on a tradition and relationship that we at the University of Minnesota have had with China and Chinese students for the past 100 years. My visit to China this month marks this historic moment. Our visit is the launching pad for a year-long celebration we will be conducting on our campuses in Minnesota and with our partners and alumni here in China. In 1914, nearly a century ago, the first Chinese students came to our University.

Three students from Shanghai enrolled. Imagine what that was like. Taking a boat from Shanghai to, probably, San Francisco. Then, hopping on a train for 2,000 miles to the middle of North America and to Minnesota, a remote state that then had only 200,000 inhabitants. No email. No mobile phone. Just a lot of courage. They were named Yih Kum Kwang, who majored in mining technology. And two brothers—Wen Huen Pan—who majored in engineering. And Wen Ping Pan—who was a chemistry major.

It was, for sure, a simpler, but much more difficult time. Consider the size of the University of Minnesota in 1913-14. We had a grand total of 3,484 students then. Today, our University, with five campuses across the entire state of Minnesota, has nearly 70,000 students, and about 2,500 of them are Chinese.

Our University’s relationship to China has been steadfast and strong over the years. By 1979, we were one of the first American universities to send a delegation to China once U.S.-China relations were re-opened.

We opened our own China Center on our Minneapolis campus that same year. Various other partnerships blossomed. Today, we have more than 5,000 alumni living in China, and over the years more than 8,000 students from China have earned University of Minnesota degrees. And my visit marks the seventh official delegation from our university to China over the past three decades. So, we at the University of Minnesota and students and scholars in China have been colleagues for many years and have great connections, and I cherish that.

Land grant mission

Those two elements of our history that I have mentioned—our pioneering and current research with PM 2.5 and our early enrollment of Chinese students—were born from the principles of our mission as a “land grant” University.

Let me explain. The University of Minnesota was established in 1851, but our mission today is guided by the Morrill Act passed by the United States Congress in 1863. Named after Senator Justin Morrill, it established the so-called land grant institutions in the United States—the institutions that in large part provide public higher education in America.

The act says in part: [T]o teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

Amid a very dark time in our nation’s history—during our own Civil War—President Abraham Lincoln had the foresight to sign this marvelous piece of legislation, the Morrill Act, that ensured the future of public higher education. That system is state-based. That is, there is no federal or national system of higher education in the United States. Each one of our 50 states administers its own college and university systems, and most states have more than one. But the Morrill Act allowed the federal, or central, government in Washington to provide land to the states to build and develop universities that were dedicated to a series of key principles.

That “land” aspect of the Morrill Act created the concept of a “land grant” university. The principles are clear. One is that higher education should be accessible to all those who are qualified students. That is, going to college was not to be an activity only for the upper classes of American society, only for the rich kids from rich families. The second principle was that these newly established universities should emphasize agriculture, mechanical arts, and a liberal education. And by mechanical arts, they meant what we today call engineering. A liberal education meant a commitment to the liberal arts, humanities, and today’s social sciences. It is a law that has had a sweeping impact on American higher education and, so, on the nation itself.

It created the mission that drives us: teaching the next generation of leaders of the world, conducting research that creates new knowledge, and reaching out to communities across our state to improve the quality of life of our citizens, be it social or environmental or health related. And we are committed to seeing that research work to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges and problems, be it environmental crises, attacks on food safety, or international public finance.

The Morrill Act laid the groundwork for what an American research university is all about today, 151 years later. And it has endured, even as the role of universities like ours has changed. Back when Lincoln was President 150 years ago, agriculture meant feeding the people of Minnesota. Today it means helping to feed the world, using all of our scientific resources with enhanced ways to grow crops, produce healthy food animals, and determining the future of biofuels. It means protecting the planet’s food supply from disease and even from determined terrorists. In fact, we are the home of the United States’ National Center for Food Protection and Defense, which does just that.

The mechanical arts used to mean basic engineering. Today the field includes such sophisticated disciplines as biochemical engineering and nanotechnology—disciplines that produce new products, new companies, new well-trained student-entrepreneurs, and new jobs. And the liberal arts continue to produce students with great critical thinking skills and strong communication skills, preparing them to be engaged citizens, creative artists, wonderful scholars, and leaders of companies, non-governmental agencies, and government, too. The liberal arts help to create free thinkers who can help to drive innovation. Free thinkers in 1862 were focused on their region or nation. Today, we are decidedly global, as my visit here illustrates and the various cooperative agreements we’ve signed across China demonstrate.

And we are among the top research universities in the United States in many disciplines. Among all the public universities in the United States, we at the University of Minnesota are the eighth most active in research, even though our state, Minnesota, is the 21st most populous state. We conduct about 800 million U.S. dollars worth of research every year. And the fundamental principles around our research are also clear. We want to create new knowledge. We want to advance science and engineering. And we want to contribute to the common good to make our state, our nation and the world a better place to live. These may sound like high aspirations—or even dreams—but that’s what must drive our scholarship, and it is certainly what drives a culture of innovation. That culture of innovation will invent new products, new processes, new cures, new treatments, new solutions, new jobs, and new opportunities for the economic well-being of our people. Just like the work of Professor Pui is doing as our University’s Center for Filtration Research has an impact here in China with your scientific and political leadership.

Workings of an American research university

With that in mind, I want to detail for you exactly how the research enterprise works in the United States and at our University. It is different from your system. At Minnesota, we have a wide range of research interests because we are such a comprehensive university. We are one of only four universities in the United States with a law school, a medical school, an agricultural college, a veterinary school, a business/management school, and an engineering school all on one campus. We educate undergraduates. We do research with graduate students. We prepare professionals to be leaders in health sciences, finance, and public policy.

That wide-ranging research spectrum is overseen by our Vice President for Research. The mission of that office is clear: The OVPR serves the University of Minnesota and the public by advocating for and facilitating the research and scholarly activities of its faculty, staff, and students. In fulfillment of this mission, we provide the specific expertise, systems, and services that support the University’s goal of becoming a top public research university. That Office for Research is quite large. It is so extensive because there are many rules, laws, and protocols that must be followed. And it is so extensive because we are tackling some of the most sensitive problems facing humanity, from cancer to global warming, to the safety of our food supply, to the development of medical devices to keep hearts beating and brains functioning.

Here are some examples of the units we have to ensure our research is complying with best practices of sciences and the requirements of government.

We have Sponsored Projects Administration, with 49 people. It supports faculty in seeking, acquiring, and managing externally sponsored funding for research, training, and public service projects. We have a Human Research Protection Program, with 20 people. That ensures the safety, rights, and well-being of human research subjects by reviewing and monitoring the use of human subjects in clinical trials and any side effects. We have an Office of Animal Welfare, with 11 people. That manages administrative support, inspection, and compliance functions so we humanely treat the dogs, horses, pigs, and other animals we use to improve human health. These are just a few examples of the bureaucracy required at an American research university. And it is our responsibility because we are must account for oversight and compliance.

Let me move on to the various ways our research is funded, how our discoveries move to the marketplace, and how our scientists and engineers are rewarded. That must occur in areas of: research support; federal or state grant and contract funding; industrial support, gifts, or philanthropy; direct funding by the institution (matching, start up funds, honorific); and royalties from licenses and patents of inventions and discoveries.

The first relates to the process of a major discovery, and the way that funding from the United States government can drive that discovery. In 1980, the U.S. government through its many agencies considered what happened to the fruits of research. So, 33 years ago a law called Bayh-Dole was passed to encourage and incentivize innovation by allowing the potential profits from any discovery to be retained by the university for which the scientist works. At least in the United States, if you want somebody to do something, letting them make money is often an incentive.

For example, after selling the rights to a drug discovery or a medical device or software to a major company, the profits and ongoing sales revenues are split three ways: one third to the University, one third to the scientist’s college within the University, and one third to the scientist himself.

An entrepreneurial scientist can actually make millions of dollars while helping to save millions of lives. But such major profit-making discoveries are rare. Extremely rare. And, eventually, the patent on such discoveries, products, or processes expires, and so the profits dwindle.

That’s one avenue of our research process: federal funding and, in some cases, a major discovery. Typically, research of this nature begins with a grant from a United States federal institute or agency, such as the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the National Science Foundation (NSF) or other governmental bureaus, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For example, Dr. Pui’s research on PM 2.5 has received grants from the NSF and EPA.

Those grants from such agencies are extremely competitive, with about one in ten grant requests awarded to scientists. That funding allows principal investigators to set up their own laboratories, and to hire Ph.D. students, post-doctoral students and even, sometimes, undergraduates to aid in the research project. If and when a discovery is made that seems to be game changing or life changing the scientist and the University then engage in negotiations to protect that intellectual property by seeking a patent.

An example of what was developed at the University of Minnesota is a drug called Ziagen. It is an anti-HIV drug that is used for the prevention and treatment of AIDS in adults and children around the world. Revenues from Ziagen have brought my university around $600 million over the past 15 years, providing positions for faculty, fellowships for graduate students, and grants for postdoctoral fellows. But discoveries like Ziagen first require approval by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration, a process that can take years as the drug is tested and proven to be effective and safe.

Industry partners

There is a second research relationship that we call “industrial sponsored research.” This occurs when an outside company, such as 3M or Apple or Toyota, comes to us with an idea and wants our scientists or engineers on our faculty to help them with that idea. Under that scenario, our Office for Technology Commercialization, or OTC, helps scientists to partner with industry leaders to bring their discoveries, inventions, and cures to the marketplace for the common good. It employs 45 experts who understand the issues in industry and science.

They work with our faculty and researchers and with private industry around the United States and world, attempting to match up great ideas with investors, and new discoveries with companies. We develop a contract that details how any intellectual property that emerges from this partnership will be shared or owned. We also develop strict guidelines around conflicts of interest to ensure that the science is good and provable, and to protect our students.

That sponsored research is increasing as U.S. companies look more and more to universities like ours for our expertise and resources. Right now, a perfect example of this form of research is our Medical Devices Center. One of our ongoing partners is Medtronic, one of the world’s leading medical device corporations, which is based in Minnesota.

We at the University of Minnesota helped to invent the pacemaker about 60 years ago with the ingenuity of engineer Earl Bakken. Medtronic was born from that initial discovery on our campus, and it thrives today around the world with headquarters in Minnesota about 10 miles from our campus. That medical device tradition has carried on, and today many of the world’s top medical device makers come to us for assistance in inventing and developing new products. Their financial support aids our research, and we construct contractual arrangements that are fair for both sides. If and when new products get to the marketplace—after years of development and approvals—we all share in the profits.

And thirdly, our scientists can create their own companies, their own startups, or spinoffs. Let me give you a few examples. One is Miromatrix, which developed from research conducted in our Medical School. Our then-research associate Harald Ott removed the heart from a euthanized animal, decellularized or removed the cells from it, and then injected it with a mixture of heart cells from a donor rat. After only eight days in a bioreactor, the heart began to beat again! He and others published their results, and investors saw the potential. Those investors contacted our Office for Technology Commercialization.

This method of decellularizing any vascularized tissue, up to and including whole organs, and similarly, recellularizing the tissue using perfusion, is protected by a series of patent applications in all major markets, and has been licensed to Miromatrix Medical from the University of Minnesota on an exclusive, worldwide basis. It is still in the development process, but has great possibilities in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Another example of a startup is Recon Robotics. It is now the world leader in tactical, micro-robot systems. Worldwide, nearly 4,000 of the company’s robots have been deployed by military forces and law enforcement agencies, bomb squads, and fire/rescue teams. One of the robots, or Throwbots, is about 30 cm long and weighs about 500 grams. Soldiers or police officers throw it as far as 10 meters. There is a video camera and microphone in there so they can discover if there is a bomb, a criminal, or an injured human in a dangerous place. It is used every day in many ways for various purposes around the world, saving lives and capturing bad guys.

One of our scientists in our College of Science and Engineering invented this, and our Office for Technology Commercialization helped him to find investors and launch his own company, which is now doing quite well. His early research did receive some funding from the National Science Foundation. Robotics is an extremely strong area of research at the University of Minnesota. Let me show you a recent breakthrough in robotics at the University of Minnesota, and also the attention it is gaining. This work by our Professor of Biomedical Engineering Bin He has been receiving worldwide attention, but here’s what a local TV station had to say.

Story on Bin He’s research.

Clearly, innovation is driven by many forces. At an American research university, innovation is rewarded in many ways. One thing that is unpredictable is what we call serendipity. Serendipity means discoveries often occur through a pleasant surprise or a mistake that turns into something good. That is, sometimes, good scientists and engineers simply have good luck. But innovation is also born when scholars, government, business, and a firm infrastructure is in place, with incentives. And with hard and tough scientific investigation, work, and trial and error. The biggest incentive, of course, should be the common good, and helping to find cures, treatments, and solutions to real problems.

This growth of our research enterprise will continue. And recently we have focused on four areas, with support from the state government of Minnesota. The areas of research we will focus on are: food safety and food production; robotics and the need to revive manufacturing in Minnesota; water quality, seeking to ensure that the water we have and water that industry and agriculture uses remains clean; and neuroscience, seeking ways to find cures and treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s or to control addictions. The state of Minnesota agreed to provide almost $40 million over the next two years.

Liberal arts and free thinking

Let me quickly turn now to another area of importance to American higher education and to the University of Minnesota. It may not be seen as directly linked to innovation, but it remains one of the strengths and distinct characteristics of American higher education, and that is the liberal arts. They are also part of that Morrill Act mission I discussed earlier. By the liberal arts and humanities we mean all those topics and disciplines that aren’t part of the so-called hard sciences. These are skills like language and critical thinking, communications and history, embracing the arts and culture, and understanding the psychology of people and the sociology of communities.

We at American universities strive to not only develop topic-specific experts. We don’t want to have a nation of one-track minds. We want to develop problem-solvers, young and developing minds that question the status quo and seek to move their community and the world forward. We want to grow leaders who are curious. Don Randel, a former president of the University of Chicago, said it best—and I love this quote: “The ultimate foundation of any society ought to be the human imagination, honed to the greatest degree and in the company of its faithful companion…curiosity.”

Curiosity is the driver for creative work in all fields. There is, admittedly, a certain questioning of authority in the liberal arts and humanities, but it is a questioning that seeks to examine and then solve some of Minnesota’s and the world’s most pressing problems. It’s critical thinking, and I know your higher education leadership is discussing the need for this among your college students. One of the world’s great scientists agreed. Albert Einstein said: “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

We value the academic freedom that allows the ability to take your curiosity and imagination wherever you want it to go and encourages investigators and students to explore topics—even if they fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

That sort of freedom drives innovation, too, enhancing the quality of life for a nation’s citizens and for the world community.


In closing, I believe the future of any global university must rely on partnerships.

Those partnerships must exist on many levels. Clearly, a chief partnership is between professor and student. Educators must encourage students to follow their own paths, to train them well, to give them freedom to fly. Students like you are our future, and we must nourish you. Partnerships among faculty and scholars from different disciplines are also essential. That is, an interdisciplinary series of partnerships that encourages scholars in various disciplines and colleges to work together to solve problems and seek solutions. And, of course, institutions like ours—the University of Minnesota and the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences—must continue to work together, to strengthen ties, to learn from each other, and to deepen the necessary and desired understanding between our two nations. The University of Minnesota has been welcoming Chinese students and scholars for 100 years, and building on that relationship.

Thank you very much for the honor of speaking with you today. I would very much like to hear any questions you may have or any comments or suggestions. Thank you again.