Thinking in the long term: Licensing STEM research?

LIGHTcoverRecently, I attended the NSTA STEM Expo in Atlantic City to connect with a couple of colleagues in laser education that I’d never met in person. I left with some fantastic new connections and an expanded sense of community—but I also left wondering about the valuable work done at research and teaching institutions. How do those research-based findings and products make it out into the world—or do they at all?

For example, take the excellent Photon PBL (Problem-Based Learning) Project. From 2006 to 2009, the project produced eight comprehensive, standards-aligned, multimedia problem-based learning challenges. Far from simple activities, these learning challenges vividly and engagingly bring to life the very best in inquiry/problem-based learning. And they, along with a comprehensive teacher’s guide, are available for free. A 371-page, 15-chapter supporting textbook, Light, is available for only $30. As additional support for teachers, the project even offered a 12-week hands-on workshop that taught both the content of the curriculum and the often-intimidating art of teaching in a problem-based learning format.

These materials have reached approximately 150 classrooms. But considering the enormous value of this work and the extensive resources ($1M+, not to mention thousands of person-hours) invested in creating it, I find that number to be woefully small.

So why aren’t the quality materials created by the Photon PBL Project—and other projects like it—reaching a wider audience?

Bringing-Stem-to-light-coverIt’s not a lack of interest. In fact, there’s great desire for new and thoughtfully, thoroughly researched material. Our experience at LASER Classroom™ supports this: our own FREE Light Experiments and Lessons have been downloaded almost 200 times in the past two months—not just by teachers, but by administrators and industry leaders as well.

The real issue is larger: a multi-faceted problem of institutionalization and dissemination. ThePhoton PBL Project’s materials are still available to teachers for free or at minimal cost—but how would you know? If you dig deep, you can find several academic papers from 2009 on the project on the website of the New England Board of Higher Education. However, unless you already know what you’re looking for, you may not stumble onto the project’s page—and even if you do, it is difficult to know that the materials are still available or how to get access to them.

Why does this happen? Research institutions are great at creating, but dissemination—marketing and sales—is just not what they do in the long term. Right now, projects like the Photon PBL do great work and may have very high impact on a small number of participants. But if there were a system to transfer this knowledge, and to help those research-based findings and products make it out there into the world, imagine how much more could be possible. How can we create that kind of institutional memory?

One option is to add licensing to the list of potential dissemination activities. Under the terms of many grants, dissemination usually means presenting at conferences. But what if licensing—to for-profit groups who have more experience in marketing and distributing—were an option for researchers? The benefits could be huge:

  • Greater reach. Through licensing, research findings and products could spread well beyond narrow academic circles to a broad community of inventors, developers and business people.
  • Increased collaboration. Licensing partnerships could allow that broader community to use the findings and build on the original source materials through derivative works.
  • Additional revenue. Licensing could create additional revenue—through fees as well as permissions for any derivative works—for the groups that originally performed the research and created the products.
  • Price control for consumers. Licensing could help set price limits for the products, to help ensure access for the widest possible audience.

In short, for the right projects, licensing could be mutually beneficial to everyone involved.

Licensing won’t be right for all projects, of course. But for some, it might be a powerful tool to get those findings and materials out into the world for others to use and build on—thus allowing that research to have a big impact on a far greater number of people.

And isn’t that ultimately our goal?