USC Digital Transformation Lab

University of South Carolina research efforts include its Digital Transformation Lab, unveiled in September, and work with Siemens on improving Army helicopter maintenance. Provided

The University of South Carolina has been pushing to put more of its best ideas to work in business, increasing its work with corporate partners and earning more government patents.

USC has numbers to back up its research success: most notably, it has ranked among the top 100 universities in the world for the past six years for patents awarded for its new ideas.

An article in an academic journal argues that sponsoring companies are being given the power to influence important research, which is supposed to be pursued for science, not just profit. USC, however, maintains that it has rules that protect the integrity of its work, and it continues to seek more corporate investment in research.

The academic warning, published this month in the Journal of Public Health Policy, included scrutiny of the university's relationship with Coca-Cola as the beverage company sponsored research on diet and health, a project that the company eventually would walk away from without explanation.

The article's authors assert that sponsors such as Coca-Cola could affect the work being done even when researchers preserve the right to publish whatever results they find. 

"The emails we obtained reveal that academic partners recognize Coca-Cola’s influence on the research it funds, even where it is not directing the research," authors Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Martin McKee and David Stuckler wrote in the journal article. 

In the Coca-Cola sponsored projects and others, the university maintains key academic standards about its right to publish research results as part of its obligation to uphold the public good, university spokesman Jeff Stensland said. 

The ethical debate comes as USC has been posting strong results in the acquisition of patents, a key metric for research success. According to data from the National Academy of Inventors, the university tied for 70th in the world for 2017.

The Southeastern Conference landed seven colleges in the ranks of the top 100 for receiving patents. The Atlantic Coast Conference had eight universities on the list (which did not include Clemson), while the Big Ten Conference had 13 of its 14 colleges in the top 100.

USC has sought to make better use of its intellectual heft through the expanded achievement of patents, Stensland said. Part of the university's mandate is to improve the state's economic well-being, and patents are part of taking its ideas and finding them a home in the marketplace. "It returns benefits to the state's economy," he said.

The improvement in achieving patents at USC has been driven by a combination of an increased effort to focus staff attention on pursuing them and more innovative projects fueled by private partnerships, according to Chad Hardaway, deputy director of the Office of Economic Engagement.

The university has been prodding those involved in research to be more aware of the prospects for patenting innovative ideas, an effort to change the culture to be more entrepreneurial, Hardaway said. Leadership on this issue has come from the top, University President Harris Pastides.

"He's continued to say we want to be a university that files a lot of patents," Hardaway said. 

The university combined several offices, including a business incubator and the office overseeing its Innovista development and research project, to create its Office of Economic Engagement, intending to improve its ability to take patented technology and find private-sector partners for it.

In particular, the university has looked to work with companies that have an economic stake in the state for research, with Boeing as a prime example. Boeing has been a major sponsor of aerospace research at USC's Ronald E. McNair Center. One project that Boeing has been interested in: a system that uses a single carbon fiber being used in 3-D printing to make strong, light objects.

"They were a company we wanted to partner with for a long time," Stensland said.

Other companies that continue to be involved in research at USC include Samsung, Siemens and IBM.

It's the rules that underlie those relationships and the way they can be used that drew the attention of the authors of the journal article.

The authors used the Freedom of Information Act to request documents relating to several corporate-collegiate interactions, including USC's responses to Coca-Cola. Researchers using such grants could be influenced by knowledge that preliminary results unfavorable to the company could result in the yanking of support, they write, which Coca-Cola had the power to do within 15 days for any reason.

The authors warn that companies could use their ability to pull funding to influence how research is done and reported, though they acknowledge that they have no evidence that Coca-Cola abandoned its support for the USC project for those reasons.

Stensland emphasized that corporate partners have no ability to edit what researchers at USC publish unless they are protecting their option to create a patent out of the material. All arrangements with corporate sponsors are reviewed by the university's research office to ensure that academic rights are protected. In the Coca-Cola case and others, USC always retains the right to publish as it sees fit, he said. 

"There was nothing untoward that went on in their research," Stensland said.

Such partnerships will continue to be a focus at the university because of the benefits that can be offered to the public by pairing academic research with business prowess through patented work, Stensland said. 

"They are loading up on our brainpower to improve what they can offer to consumers," he said.

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Mike Fitts is a veteran South Carolina journalist who covers business from Columbia.

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