Troubled Start at NIC

January, 2015

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Innovation Campus, a public-private partnership endeavor on the old State Fairgrounds focusing on food, fuel, and water, is getting off to a slow start. With the exception of ConAgra, the NIC has not attracted companies interested in locating there. There has already been a management shake-up, with UNL taking a stronger role in recruiting. UNL also wants more money from the state legislature to try to get the project moving. There is talk at the Regents' level of needing additional tax breaks as location incentives.

Recruiting wasn't helped by a guest speaker at UNL in October, MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who told the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues that most universities' public-private "innovation" centers are anything but. He said universities typically go after the wrong companies and the wrong people. I was at the lecture and had to suppress a gasp – did he not know the Nebraska Innovation Campus was one of sponsors of his talk?

Recruiting may also not be helped by the UNL partnership with ConAgra. Few companies have a worse record and reputation for environmental concerns. ConAgra, a company often in trouble not only with the EPA but also with the SEC and the Department of Justice, is the epitome of Big Ag. With UNL committed to combining its Food Science and Technology Department with ConAgra on the Innovation Campus, some potential recruits may sense that Big Ag and its bottom-line emphasis on short term profits will be calling the shots, and that real scientific innovation and the faculty academic freedom that can make it happen will suffer.

Such fears could only have been enhanced by the New York Times' page 1 article and subsequent editorial on bad research practices at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center, a collaborative effort of USDA and UNL. According to the Times, an experienced veterinarian on the UNL faculty who blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and practices at the center was told by his supervisor to stay away from the center and not to show a reporter his concerns. This could steer NIC prospects away from associating with any UNL enterprise.

There is also a question of whether the university itself is ready for innovation. Last fall two of us had lunch at the famous Dairy Store on the UNL East Campus, where customers can buy ice cream, cheese, milk and other dairy products produced on site. It also serves sandwiches and salads. We asked if there was anything organic on the menu, to the bewilderment of the persons behind the counter who were not familiar with the term organic. Management in the back room was consulted; the answer was no. We ordered anyway and ate a tasteless lunch amid posters proclaiming the wonderful world of processed and manufactured foods, as if this were the 1950s and obesity was not yet a problem.

This was a shock. Innovation in agriculture is happening in the booming farm-to-table and organic farming movements all across the country. In Lincoln I shop at Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery that markets the produce of local organic farms. These farms also supply several of Lincoln's and Omaha's best restaurants. One day I asked the Open Harvest manager if her business or any of these farms were working with the university. "No," she said, "what they do with food down there is the opposite of what we stand for."

NIC may well fail if it does not begin to define itself as genuinely open to all innovation, not just the kind certain food and fuel businesses favor. This may require tolerance of truly independent thinkers who go against the grain and raise uncomfortable questions about nutrition, antibiotics, fertilizers, water, and climate change. It may require a new ethic in research administration, to stand up for whistleblowers, not to silence them.

I want the NIC to succeed, and succeed in a big way. It is located partly in the old fairgrounds' 4-H building, where as a youngster I showed beef cattle, and in the old Industrial Arts building, which was the one and only art gallery to display our one-room country school's works of art. NIC success would justify converting those venerable buildings into something far larger than we could ever imagine.