Universities and Intellectual Property

The National Research Council (the research arm of the National Academies) has just released its new report on Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest. The product of two groups — the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy (STEP) and the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law (CSTL) — this report looks specifically at the university technology transfer system put in place as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.
The university tech transfer system has been under criticism from two fronts. One side believes the system of centralized university tech-transfer offices puts a barrier between inventors and the market. They would like to see university faculty have the freedom to pick their own path rather than use the universities’ tech transfer system. The other side see a misguided the focus by the tech transfer system on maximizing licensing revenues – to the determent of other knowledge creation activities.
The report finds the basic system has been effective, but in need of improvements. Among those improvements should be a clearly articulate set of goals by the university as to the role of tech-transfer as part of the core educational and knowledge creation purpose of universities. As the report states, “Patenting and licensing practices should not be predicated on the goal of raising significant revenue for the institution.”
With respect to the other critique, the report states: “A persuasive case has not been made for converting to an inventor ownership or ‘free agency’ system in which inventors are able to dispose their inventions without university administration approval.”
The report contains a number of specific recommendations to improve the existing system. This includes better oversight by the federal government of its own technology transfer system and how that interacts with university-based research.
I doubt that the report will end all the debate on university tech-transfer. At least it will give the debate a better framework. The transfer and flow of knowledge is a key element of the I-Cubed Economy. Universities play an important role in that flow. So getting the university “knowledge-transfer” system right is important. The “tech-transfer” system need to be seen in that larger context. Patents and licenses, as the report notes, is just one part of overall university activities:

The transition of knowledge into practice takes place through a variety of mechanisms, including but not limited to:
1. movement of highly skilled students (with technical and business skills) from training to private and public employment;
2. publication of research results in the open academic literature that is read by scientists, engineers, and researchers in all sectors;
3. personal interaction between creators and users of new knowledge (e.g., through professional meetings, conferences, seminars, industrial liaison programs, and other venues);
4. firm-sponsored (contract) research projects involving firm-institution agreements;
5. multi-firm arrangements such as university-industry cooperative research centers;
6. personal individual faculty and student consulting arrangements with individual private firms;
7. entrepreneurial activity of faculty and students occurring outside of the university without involving university-owned IP; and
8. licensing of IP to established firms or to new start-up companies.

Pursuing all of these mechanism is important. Universities need to create an environment to allow that. Sometimes that balancing can be difficult. But nothing the universities do should inhibit that primary role of knowledge creation and dissemination. That is their most important function in the I-Cubed Economy.

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