By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer
June 15, 2001 -- For the sake of a promotion, Kenneth "Beau" Farmer has decided not to practice what he preaches.
He's going to publish his work on micromirrors and miss out on a chance to make a profit through patent rights. The alternative, he said, is to jeopardize a promotion to full professor.
For three years, Farmer has been director of the microelectronics research center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). And he is in charge of the grant program of the New Jersey MEMS Initiative, a state-funded effort that hopes to make New Jersey one of the world centers for small tech.
One goal of both the center and the initiative is to foster the advancement of small tech through alliances with the private sector.
A key component of that, says Farmer, is getting patent protection, and he has been at the forefront of those in academia urging his students to hold off on publishing while they do so. Until now, he's done the same - the university holds two patents for his work.
But for the foreseeable future, Farmer says, he will operate under the traditional academic rule: Publish or perish.
Well, not perish, because he has tenure.
Though director of microelectronics, he is a member of the physics department. Last year the full professors in his department voted to deny him a promotion from associate professor to full professor because they say he isn't publishing enough, or in the most visible peer-reviewed journals.
"The department voted very clearly: They won't promote me unless I publish," he says. "It's not that I hadn't published. I had. For years I've published, but I did it in a way that was favorable to protecting industry secrets. I haven't published patentable information, and I haven't published in the foremost journals."
Farmer says he and his students have developed a design methodology that promises to greatly simplify the making of micromirrors - the kind that have so much potential in an all-optical telecommunications system. Until recently, he would have filed for a patent and eventually tried to license the patent to private industry.
Instead, he says he has submitted the work to a leading journal, which has accepted it pending revisions. (Because the journal has yet to approve the revisions and publication is still tentative, Farmer declines to name it.)
"I'm going to publish it because I want to get promoted. I've got a family to support. I've got babies at home. And I'll publish other things. We'll give up our international patent rights.
"It's a Catch-22. I've got the school administration and the vice president for research and development saying 'Let's go for patents.' But the professors in my department are saying publish your patentable information."
The issue touches on another campus clash of cultures - those running high-tech research centers such as NJIT's need an interdisciplinary approach involving electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, physicists and chemists. But researchers working on such projects have their career success determined by their individual departments.
"Part of the problem is that (Farmer) is in the physics department," says Donald Sebastian, a school vice president and director of technology development. "Perhaps he'd be better off in the electrical engineering department."
While Farmer reports to Sebastian as director of the microelectronics center, Sebastian is out of the loop regarding promotions.
Sebastian would not specifically rate Farmer's performance at the center, but he did say that Farmer's work there is in accordance with the university mission of transforming itself from "an instructional school to a full-fledged research institution.
"The emphasis on the translation of knowledge into product and processes has been the cornerstone of our president's vision for 15 years. You can't just participate in academic chatter and marching societies ...
"One of my charters is to increase the utilization of the microelectronics center in ways that pay for it. You do that by translating ideas into early-stage prototypes that can be turned into licenses and eventually spin-offs where the university has an equity position. At the core of this whole concept, we're trying to create mechanisms that allow us to bring industry into the university."
Adds Farmer: "The old paradigm is in place and entrenched. The new paradigm is a reality, but if you think it's replaced the old one, you're wrong. If you think it has, like I did, you're probably naive."
The chairman of applied physics department, Anthony Johnson, agrees that Farmer's situation represents a larger issue in academia and may lead to a change in the way promotions are decided at NJIT.
"I'm Beau's biggest fan," Johnson says. "Some of the old guidelines for promotion have to be revisited, and perhaps things like patents have to be on a par with publishing . . . This case may be the trigger that causes us to reconsider the way we do things."
"You have to understand: I had 15 years at Bell Labs, so I'm sensitive to this. Patents are important and should be considered in any tenure or promotion process. We need to be moving in that direction."
CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Henderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 734-994-1106, ext. 233.