Robert Marchessault


A model worth copying?

ELLYN KERR | Over the course of his career, chemistry professor Robert Marchessault has straddled the research fence, alternating between academe and industry, and even combining the two. He has published many articles advocating such a combination, citing significant mutual benefits.

With access to industry funds and resources, universities gain what he calls "market connection, complementary technical resources, curriculum enrichment and enhanced public credibility." Likewise, industry gains "access to students and faculty, expansion of its research areas and access to peer review."

Marchessault completed doctoral research in chemistry at McGill in 1954, and did postdoctoral studies at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. He then worked at the American Viscose Corporation as a research scientist before joining the chemistry departments of, first, the State University of New York at Syracuse and later, Université de Montréal. In 1978 he returned to industry, becoming Vice-President and Manager of the Xerox Research Centre of Canada.

He joined McGill in 1987 to assume the first Xerox-NSERC Industrial Research Chair. His research priority was to develop high tech paper products, but he expressed two other goals in a communiqué issued at the time.

"[I plan] to help McGill enhance its technical training for graduate students entering an industrial research career, and to share with the scientific community some of the entrepreneurial skills I've learned at Xerox and elsewhere."

Marchessault alluded to these goals as keynote speaker at this year's Student Pugwash Conference. The Pugwash organization stemmed from a 1957 conference of international scientists and academics held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in response to an anti-war manifesto issued by, among others, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Pugwash's mandate has since expanded to consider the broader social responsibilities of science, with weekly discussions and annual conferences held on campuses world-wide.

Science, Marchessault contends, is responsible for contributing to both the fiscal and intellectual economy. Scientists should be directing at least some of their research towards developing saleable high tech products, and they should be training graduate students to assimilate into society beyond academe.

"You like to see a university be part of the economic stream. I don't think university researchers have the freedom to do anything they want. You have an obligation to be relevant. I don't mean research has to be subservient to industry. But when you train students, you have to realize that most of them are going to be out in the real world. You need to have curricula which fit."

Equally, says Marchessault, there are obligations on researchers in industry, and many academics fail to recognize the scientific contributions made in the corporate sector.

"The research we did as we were training people to understand the technology and science behind xerography resulted in more publications in a year than are produced by the typical chemistry department in Canada. The quality of the research and the scientists at Xerox surpassed anything within my experience at universities."

If colleagues had doubts about his leaving Université de Montréal to join Xerox, Marchessault himself felt he had a clear mission.

"People assumed I left for the money, as if that were the only motivation for people. Sure, you shouldn't work at a place that doesn't recognize your professional status. But when I went to Xerox, I felt it was a responsibility. Here was a company that did very high class research. It had fantastically good people in its research staff. It spent a lot of money on research -- and it was spending it in Canada."

The bulk of Marchessault's keynote address was more story than speech. He recounted the tale of Chester Carlson, inventor of the photocopier, as an example of one of the more successful marriages of industry and academic science.

After completing a physics PhD in 1930 at the California Institute of Technology, Carlson entered the job market just as the Depression began, eventually finding work as a patent attorney. Frustrated by the lack of a convenient method to reproduce prototype drawings for patent submissions, Carlson began to devise a mechanical copier. He conducted home experiments before eventually creating a small prototype capable of crude copies.

The functioning of Carlson's "xerographic" machine was based on two scientific principles: photoconductivity (the property of certain materials to conduct electricity depending on exposure to light), and the attraction of positively charged particles to negatively charged ones.

Essentially, an image is exposed by lenses onto a photoconductive surface. This creates a corresponding mirror image in the form of electrical charges. The latent image becomes visible when a powder of opposite charge is cascaded over the photoconductive surface. The powder binds in varying intensities depending on the variances in the "electric painting." The final image is ultimately collected on a sheet of paper.

Carlson registered patents for his prototype, and for the final marketable version he hoped to develop after acquiring appropriate funding. But every corporation to which he applied, including IBM and 3M, turned him down. According to Marchessault, one representative incredulously demanded, "What damn fool would replace a secretary with a machine the size of a desk?"

Eventually Carlson teamed with a non-profit research centre, and then with a commercial company that produced photographic materials. It took over 20 years for Carlson to develop his idea into a commercially available desktop copier. Xerography now constitutes a $50-billion-a-year international industry.

Marchessault applauded Carlson for taking the basic principles of photoconductivity and opposite charge attraction, and developing from these not only a marketable, useful product, but a whole field of research based upon that product.

"Technology breeds industries which breed research. From basic xerography, new research fields developed. Improved xerographic photoconductors turned out to be amorphous [i.e., non-crystalline], and suddenly a whole new field developed on the properties of amorphous solids."

Marchessault, who currently holds the E.B. Eddy Industrial Research Chair funded by the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (PAPRICAN), himself pursues applied research. One project is to develop a biodegradable plastic to coat paper, making it impervious to water. Many bacteria, under certain conditions, store food in the form of plastic polymers which can be harvested and processed. Conventional plastics biodegrade over years; Marchessault's plastic degrades within weeks.

The plastic has other obvious applications, such as packaging for fluid commercial products like shampoo and cosmetics, and Marchessault said that several companies have expressed interest in his environmentally friendly product.

He acknowledges that corporate ties to university research may involve the expectation of reciprocity. McGill now accepts bids for equipment once supplied exclusively by Xerox, whose copy machines are all over campus. Marchessault says that former colleagues at Xerox have occasionally requested mediation on his part.

"It's a give-and-take thing. Big companies like Xerox give money to universities, but also like to get business in return."

There is also the possibility of conflict over publishing rights. As Marchessault notes, academics are concerned mainly with publishing results. But to protect profits, industry often prefers to safeguard data until it has been patented.

Ultimately Marchessault's vision is not one in which industrial, applied research obliterates pure research. He advocates the need for both, with applied research funded by industry, and basic research funded by granting agencies such as NSERC and MRC.

"There should be some freedom to do things which are pure research, but that shouldn't necessarily constitute the whole of your research program. Without being subservient to industry, research ought to be defendable with respect to the interests of your country."