The New York Times today published an editorial about the problems created by the Bayh-Dole Act that promotes the patenting and licensing of university inventions that arise from federally supported research. [Read the editorial] The author – Janet Rae-Dupree – is concerned that the focusing on patenting and business development has “distorted the fundamental mission of universities.”
‘In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”‘
Dupree’s recollection of the golden era where labs shared everything is admittedly wrong. As she explains: “When James Watson and Francis Crick were homing in on DNA’s double-helix structure in the 1950s, they zealously guarded their work from prying eyes until they could publish their findings, to be certain that they would get the credit for making the discovery.”
The important bit of truth comes from Jennifer Washburn‘s findings that most university technology transfer offices lose money:
“To date, Ms. Washburn says, data gathered by the Association of University Technology Managers, a trade group, show that fewer than half of the 300 research universities actively seeking patents have managed to break even from technology transfer efforts. Instead, two-thirds of the revenue tracked by the association has gone to only 13 institutions.”
This problem may well be the result of growing pains – it is expensive to start from scratch and build a patent and licensing department. Many universities are actually turning to other directions: finding that local economic development – regardless of immediate licensing returns – is one of the most effective ways to ensure a continued supply of future research funding.
- Read Kevin Noonan’s take [LINK]
- The NYTimes note that many corporations are beginning to cooperate with foreign universities – essentially because US schools have become too complex and greedy.