In the mid-1970s, Jar-Mo Chen, then-head of physics at Martin Marietta Laboratories, invited the physics department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County to visit the lab to discuss ways the two neighbors might work together.
It was a short conversation.
Though one UMBC professor did wind up working part time at Martin's lab for two or three years after that, a partnership never materialized. UMBC's staff just wasn't interested, Dr. Chen recalls.
"There was no good fit and . . . there was no initiative from the school to cultivate that," he says.
Today, the fit between Martin Marietta Labs and UMBC could be likened to that of a hand and a glove: UMBC's million-dollar laboratory for studying photons, which opened last November, was built with money from Martin Marietta and is headed by an industrial scientist of the company's choosing.
Moreover, Dr. Chen, who was rebuffed so soundly by UMBC's physics department 15 years ago, sits on the university's advisory board for photonic technology. As a board member, he helps UMBC decide which research projects to pursue in photonics -- the study of light particles for use in communications.
The story of how Martin Marietta and UMBC came to be research partners -- a marriage that will link the institutions for years to come -- reflects the profound changes in the relationship between industry and academia.
Historically, technologies were created in academic labs with little or no input from industry. Many universities feared that industry, driven by profit-making opportunities, might influence the direction of academic research to the detriment of pure science.
The traditional role of industry was to fund university research projects -- and then wait. Once technologies were developed, it was up to industry to figure out how to use them in a commercial setting.
That historical model now seems to be changing.
A growing number of research universities today are knocking down the walls between academia and industry, aggressively forging ties with their corporate benefactors and sometimes creating a seamless union between the two.
Not only are these universities seeking input from their industrial partners during the creative research process, but they also are searching for guidance on the direction of future research projects.
Such technology-transfer programs -- so named because the idea is to move technology from the classroom to the boardroom -- are seen as a way for industry to capitalize on university research.
As the demarcation lines between academia and industry become increasingly blurred, new questions and concerns about the efficacy of the new technology-transfer model are being raised.
That is certainly the case at UMBC, where President Michael K. Hooker has embarked on an aggressive -- some say risky -- plan to build UMBC into one of the nation's premier research universities by the year 2000. His plan is to distinguish UMBC as pre-eminent in several, specialized technologies, including photonics, a cutting-edge science with wide-ranging commercial applications for computing, communications and weapons systems.
For the small, state-run school to be successful in that quest will take much more than wishful thinking and unbridled enthusiasm: It will take money, and lots of it.
That's where Martin Marietta and other corporate benefactors come in. By fashioning research projects around the mutual interests of UMBC and industry, Dr. Hooker hopes to attract corporate partners that have a vested interest -- and deep enough pockets -- to keep those programs afloat.
"I have never asked for charity or the gift of unrestricted money. I have only asked for industry to support programs which will benefit them," says Dr. Hooker, a philosopher-turned-educator who took over the UMBC presidency four years ago.
That would include UMBC's recent push into photonics research, one of four technologies earmarked by Dr. Hooker as important to the combined economic interests of UMBC, local industry and the state of Maryland. The other three technologies are: robotics, artificial intelligence and bioprocess engineering.
In retrospect, the decision to include photonics could be viewed as quite deliberate -- or an act of fate.
Though Dr. Hooker contends he thought photonics was ripe for university research long before he landed at UMBC, he also admits that he has a tendency to walk around with a similar view of dozens of technologies on any given day of the week.
What distinguished photonics, however, was a keen interest by Martin Marietta Laboratories, the research arm of Bethesda-based Martin Marietta Corp., the billion-dollar defense contractor.
As luck would have it, the corporate lab, located just a few miles from UMBC's campus, was building up its photonics research division at about the same time Dr. Hooker was looking to win over Martin as a long-term corporate partner.