The new Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute is housed inside the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, home to cutting-edge advances in nanotechnology, plastics engineering, optics and more. (Photo Courtesy of UMass Lowell).

The amount of research dollars public colleges and universities receive from federal and state governments is dwindling. Private companies are picking up the slack, driving innovation at public research universities. Starting next semester, a major defense contractor will send some of its top researchers to work side-by-side with students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts.

The University of Massachusetts already has a gleaming new research building on its Lowell campus, but for two years the fourth floor has been empty. Now Raytheon, one of the country’s top defense contractors, has committed at least $3 million to fill it.

Raytheon’s Chris McCarroll directs the new institute. Here, students and faculty will work alongside Raytheon researchers developing cutting-edge electronic hardware made with 3D printers. Most of these electronics will be for commercial use, for communication systems like weather and aviation radars, and cell phones.

“We’re actually printing nano-electronics here. And that’s the research that we have to do to move our electronics into the future,” McCarroll said. “It’s going to make it thinner and, ultimately, it’s going to make it much more affordable.”

Still recovering from the Great Recession, UMass Lowell says it’s the kind of research it couldn’t afford otherwise.

Representatives of UMass Lowell and Raytheon participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Meghan Moore/UMass Lowell).

“Public universities need to be run today in an entrepreneurial way, they need to be run really in the same ways private institutions are,” said congressman turned chancellor Marty Meehan.

Meehan predicts that the university’s partnership with this private company will give UMass a leg up in winning competitive public research grants.

“Increasingly, the federal government is looking for innovative collaborations between business and academia and this is an example of that,” Meehan said. “So we actually think we’ll enhance not just the reputation, but we’ll bring in more research dollars than we would without this collaboration and partnership.”

Listen to a full interview with Marty Meehan about the partnership and what it means for UMass-Lowell:

UMass Lowell has a long history of partnering with industry. The university was founded just as the Industrial Revolution was booming here along the banks of the Merrimack River, in part to educate young students about the textile industry.

Today, the new institute in Lowell is opening at a time when partnerships between technology firms and traditional public universities are once again transforming higher ed. Through another program with Raytheon, the University of Maryland is developing a degree in cyber engineering. And Georgia Tech is offering an online computer science degree sponsored by AT&T.

Across the country, companies are investing in higher ed to develop their own workforce.

“Major industries in virtually every arena are scrambling to raise their skill level,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

Corbett Broad says this is all happening as colleges are coming under fire for not giving students enough practical experience to get jobs. But, she says, there’s always been a link between colleges and companies.

“The character of that link is now changing in ways and at a pace that we haven’t seen before,” said Corbett Broad.

Raytheon vice president Paul Ferraro is counting on the company’s investment in UMass Lowell to train his future workforce.

“This is certainly a big step to close any skills gap that may exist and help us close our technology gaps, which is critical to meeting the needs of our customers,” said Ferraro.

Raytheon won’t say how many UMass Lowell graduates it plans to hire, but it seems what the Industrial Revolution did for improving physical power is what the Digital Revolution is now doing to improve intellectual power.

[This story comes to us from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.]

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Kirk Carapezza is the lead reporter for On Campus. Kirk has reported for Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis., and Vermont Public Radio in Montpelier, Vt. He's been a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad.

Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway.