With the decline of great industrial laboratories, such as Bell Labs—home of such major technological advances as the transistor and research that won seven Nobel Prizes, all in physics—many universities are putting increased focus on technological innovation, translational research, and commercialization. Work leading to successful innovations, however, "does not necessarily result in outcomes that are traditionally counted [by universities] in career advancement, such as publication," write Paul Sanberg, senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and his co-authors in an article published 28 April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In fact, it "often requires faculty members with a different working mindset and modus operandi than those conducting purely basic research."

To motivate these "different" faculty members and "unleash the innovation potential of university research," the authors argue, institutions need to expand the criteria they use to judge their faculties beyond the traditional scholarly publishing, teaching, and service. Innovation-oriented activities including "patents, licensing, and commercialization" should also count toward tenure and promotion, they believe.

Despite "very high inertia" in university culture, some institutions have already begun moving in this direction. Encouraging more to do so will require greater efforts to "actually operationalize" the new criteria "at the level of the academic department." Faculty members' impact can result from "basic research that drives further discovery or from direct solutions to society's problems through inventions," the authors note. "We must encourage bright, young faculty to consider the possibility of transitioning between both roles throughout their careers." A crucial step in doing that, they argue, is expanding the definition of academic merit.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.