Should Universities Commercialize Research?

I’ve been reading Daniel Greenberg’s book Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism. It raises a number of issues around universities and their role in commercializing inventions discovered through scientific research. Some of the issues he raises warrant significant concern (conflict of interest, especially as it relates to clinical studies) while others address the role of academics in society. Although attempting to be balanced in addressing the culture clash between campus and capitalism, the language used and the questions asked paint industry as soul-less profiteers and universities has desperately addicted to the revenue from industry. Early in the book he states:

Have today’s commercial values contaminated academic research, diverting it from socially beneficial goals to mercenary service on behalf of profit-seeking corporate interests? What are the gains and losses in the visibly tightening linkage of science and mammon, and to whose benefit and whose detriment? Can academic institutions, with their insatiable appetite for money, reap financial profits from their production of valuable knowledge without damage to the soul of science and the public? (p 2)

 

I won’t spoil the book by telling you where he comes down on these issues, but you can guess.

No matter which side you embrace, the book does raise the question of “Should universities take a role in commercializing technologies”.   Implied in this question are several others which warrant discussion:

Do universities have the obligation or the right to commercialize inventions?

Greenberg gives a brief history on how universities got into the business of commercializing inventions (“technology”), namely citing the huge incentive of the Bayh-Dole Act. The act, passed in 1981, in essence gives title, or more correctly allows the university retain title, to any invention arising from federal funding at the funded university. If the university retains title to the invention, then it has certain obligations to use the patent system (i.e. file patents) in an effort to find “practical application” (i.e. commercialize) for the invention. A careful reading of the act, detailed by Gerald Barnett, in his Guide to Bayh-Dole, shows that the university has the option to retain title or assign its interest title to a third-party. Which brings up the next question:

Does the activity of commercialization taint the academic purpose?

Some have argued the current practice afforded by the act has evolved well beyond it’s original intent. Gerald Barnett, in his detailed Guide to Bayh-Dole ends with the following:

While Bayh-Dole has been credited with the rise of a minor industry in the form of formalized university technology transfer offices, despite the aspirations to public service and benefit, the existing administrative geography looks remarkably similar to the conditions in federal agencies that led to the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act:  universities demand ownership outright, accumulate substantial unlicensed patent portfolios, disrupt research and publication efforts of other universities, raise various barriers to licensing and to research collaboration, and fail through their management processes to meet many of the objectives set forth in Bayh-Dole.

Whether you think tech transfer has become another bloated bureaucracy or not, the intent of Bayh-Dole was to help capture the value created by university research and leverage it to create products of high impact. If one concedes that university research creates something of societal value, then the question is how to capture that value. For some, publishing it all with no patent protection will let the free market sort it out. Others see value being captured by the university filling patents and licensing of the IP to an established company or a startup. Arguments are cogent on both sides. For me, the most sensible approach is to assess the timeline for getting a product to market. If the timeline is relatively short (less than a decade) then patenting might make the most sense. For discoveries that may take years to see commercial reality, saving those patent dollars may be the best approach. In either case, starting early in assessing the commercial potential is of the utmost importance.

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