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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Celebrating 40 Years of Science & Discovery

Partnering paves way for science solutions

The word partnership conjures up the image of a couple—a couple of people, a couple of businesses, a couple of governments—coming together to work on a relationship, business venture or project.

Many partnerships are still based on two. But that premise is rapidly changing—especially in science.

"As science grows, it becomes more specialized," said Mike Schwenk, who heads Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's partnership work and acts as a catalyst for new agreements. "We know more and more about fewer things. When we want to solve a problem, we can't do it alone anymore."

Solving complex problems also is more expensive, in part because it often involves the latest technologies. So it makes sense to use partnerships to leverage the different suites of tools possessed by different organizations.

In this changing scientific environment, partnerships at PNNL are becoming more sophisticated. The Laboratory is focusing on pursuing partnerships that are considered "substantive and mutually beneficial."

"Substantive," according to Schwenk, "means you can't be all things to all people. We are targeting specific universities, whose strengths complement ours, for research that will have an impact." In the past, PNNL has formed partnerships with numerous individual universities and even nongovernmental organizations like chambers of commerce. But too many individual agreements created a lack of focus.

Also on the substantive list are organizations that can help advance PNNL's science agenda by becoming advocates of the Laboratory's research and supporting it in funding requests.

"Multi-lateral partnerships are particularly powerful economically in the Pacific Northwest," said Kelly Sullivan, who works with PNNL's university partnerships and educational appointment programs. "When we partner with a university, a workforce is being developed. Spin-offs need employees with business and technical skills, and we help develop that."

PNNL partnered with Oregon State University in 2002 to form the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute (MBI). MBI specializes in the science, engineering and technology of miniature processes and systems. The two organizations have written proposals, shared staff and located facilities at both places. Now MBI is becoming part of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), which includes Oregon's three largest public research universities.

"Here's a case of a substantive, mutually beneficial partnership that demonstrates the power of that idea. It started with OSU and grew into ONAMI, an even bigger partnership that ties into the state's economic agenda," Schwenk said. "Through all of this, we're getting great scientific research, advocacy, new programs, new staff, plus university staff. You can't do that with 100 different universities. That's an example of where focus can take us."

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