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!