We've moved!

Social Icons

twitterfacebooklinkedinrss feed

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Universities, Research, Wonder, and Profit: Finding a Balance

I'm torn when it comes to the role of our universities in economic development. On the one hand, I recognize that our universities are great engines of economic growth for our communities. At the most practical level, here in Madison, a town of 6500 people, Dakota State University employs over 200 people and brings over 2000 grocery-buying students to town every year. More broadly, our universities turn our hard-working students into value-added professionals, more than a few of whom stick around South Dakota to contribute to our economy.

And then there's research. All those youngsters and their professors are doing the thinking and tinkering that can generate new products, new services, and new ways of doing business.

But as I have observed before, a university where scholars focus on nothing but building new widgets and boosting the GDP would hardly be a university. Good research relies as much on natural curiosity and creativity as on the desire to make a buck.

Writing in the New York Times, Janet Rae-Dupree finds evidence of the tension between profit and wonder. She maintains that the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which intended to promote research and innovation by opening the door for universities and their researchers to seek patents for their work, may have had the opposite effect:

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.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses [Janet Rae-Dupree, "Unboxed: When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder," New York Times, 2008.09.06].

Citing Jennifer Washburn's 2005 University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, Rae-Dupree notes that universities are finding their pursuit of patents may end up costing as much in legal fees and administrative staff as they may get in returns on patents and licensing. Those patents and the following licensing agreements may hinder innovation by locking up new discoveries, new technology, and new techniques in the hands of just one company instead of leaving them in the public domain where a broad array of scholars can work with them and build on their value. The way we're doing things, innovation may even be driven overseas:

Similarly, exclusive licensing of a discovery to a single company thwarts that innovation’s use in any number of other fields. R. Stanley Williams, a nanotechnologist from Hewlett-Packard, testified to Congress in 2002 that much of the academic research to which H.P. has had difficulty gaining access could be licensed to several companies without eroding its intellectual property value.

“Severe disagreements have arisen over conflicting interpretations of the Bayh-Dole Act,” he said. “Large U.S.-based corporations have become so disheartened and disgusted with the situation, they are now working with foreign universities, especially the elite institutions in France, Russia and China” [Rae-Dupree, 2008]

You might think patent rights are essential to giving researchers and inventors due credit and compensation for their inventions. But our universities and corporations may be finding that exclusive "ownership" of new discoveries can result in slower scientific and technological progress.

Scientific discovery is tricky business. Curiosity and wonder do not respond well to market forces. Universities can contribute to economic development locally and society-wide, but to do so, we may have to* let our smartest scholars labor safely in their ivory tower, insulated from the pressures to make a buck with every new thought.

*Editing courtesy another sharp-eyed reader—thanks!


  1. Yeah, first the government--we--kill Bell Labs and tax other corporate labs out of existence, then we try to get the universities to take up the slack.

  2. It appears that you may have left a word out of your last sentence. Instead of "Universities can contribute to economic development locally and society-wide, but to do so, we may have let our smartest scholars labor safely in their ivory tower, insulated from the pressures to make a buck with every new thought," perhaps you may have wanted to say "Universities can contribute to economic development locally and society-wide, but to do so, we may have TO let our smartest scholars labor safely in their ivory tower, insulated from the pressures to make a buck with every new thought." Of course, the thought that South Dakota would encourage the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is, unfortunately, hysterically funny.

  3. To add another dimension to this discussion, if you write a proposal to the Nationa Science Foundation (the main way university researchers get funded) there is now a specific section on outreach which includes how this proposed research can contribute to economic development. It's very difficult to find money to do basic research anymore. Honestly, my group looks to the Department of Defense for that kind of funding now (doesn't that seem backwards!) if we want to do something that isn't terribly applied and far out. It might be interesting for your readers to find out that only two states make a small profit on their IP portfolios. Anyone have any guesses on which two? :) (SD is not one of them...)

    Secondly, I do agree with you that many businesses are now using universities to do the R&D work, but not in the fashion you believe. It use to be that businesses would committee to funding a research group at a university to work on a specific problem and would license the resulting IP. This is very infrequently done now.

    The typical approach now is to not fund any particular group, keep tabs on many groups working in a general area, and then license any patented work from the university that the company could use. While this model is valuable to the company, it causes lots of problems for universities. The number one being that less than 0.01% of all university intellectual property is actually licensed. Typically, it's just not compelling enough even after going through the costly patent process to license it. This leaves universities holding all of the costs and reaping little benefits (well, I guess the costs are actually from the research sponsor, typically the NSF, so that's all of us).

    In essence, the current system has shifted the R&D funding burdon to the government from the companies.

  4. Tony,

    Would those states be Massachusetts and California? I'm just guessing here; Massachusetts has MIT and Harvard, while California has Stanford and Caltech.

    I tried to get a device patented in the 1980s. Engineers who evaluated it told me that it was interesting, unique, did what I said it should, and was patentable. It did not take me long to figure out that the patent lawyers had a racket going. They bled me until I saw through their behavior and ended the process with strong language.


    Some of our greatest inventors did not care about patents. If my memory of history is correct, examples include Michael Faraday and Bejamin Franklin.

    I suspect that many true inventors (like farmers, ranchers, composers, painters, poets, writers, and other creative types) are driven more by curiosity and fascination than by a profit motive, although money certainly is a factor to some.

    Maybe we can seek out the institutions, states, and countries where the "happiest" inventors are. (Defining "happiness" would require its own study -- maybe some sort of quiz.) Then we could try to emulate those environments on a large scale.

  5. Tony: I knew you'd have some valuable insight on this issue. Thanks! Interesting that business finds another way to shift its costs onto other service providers, including the public sector. Ah, that free market spirit... ;-)

    Stan: Identifying and replicating the conditions that promote happiness -- an interesting research question! Maybe I can work that into my dissertation... but dang, then DSU might own the IP rights.

    I wonder if maybe happiness is like love: if you're trying to make it happen, it won't. [There's a semi-philosophical question to get everyone off track!]

  6. I should have said "...seek out the institutions, states, and countries where inventors derive the most personal satisfaction from their work."

    Based on your post, maybe we should start with institutions in France, Russia, and China!

    Cory, I want to read that dissertation when you're finished with it.


Comments are closed, as this portion of the Madville Times is in archive mode. You can join the discussion of current issues at MadvilleTimes.com.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.