IDEAS FOR SALE


When the focus shifts to the bottom line, basic research always takes a hit.
Margo Bagley, Assistant Professor of Law


Join the discussion

Ideas for Sale

Growing Pains
Resources, competition, and our institutional character

Technology transfer is just a subset of knowledge transfer.
Dennis Liotta, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry

New: "If technology transfer offers a solution to the funding crisis in higher education, it does so only in a very limited way."
An interview with Lanny Liebeskind, Professor of Chemistry

Show me the money . . .
1997 licensing income and patents from Emory and other institutions

What is applied research?

How does funding work in the sciences?

Overheard on campus
Remarks from Stanley Chodorow, CEO of the California Virtual University and former provost of the University of Pennsylvania


Academic Exchange December 1999/January 2000 Contents Page

Margo Bagley is a patent attorney. Also a chemical engineer, she has worked as a researcher both in the corporate sector and for national laboratories. She is a co-inventor on a patent for reduced-fat peanut butter.

The Academic Exchange How should technology transfer work ideally?

Professor Margo Bagley In a perfect world, agreements would allow scientists to collaborate and share knowledge, receive credit for their role in the invention, and create and divide the profits. Some of the profits from these inventions would fund basic research. There would be access to patented technologies to further research at a low cost, and companies would share resources with universities in this wonderful synergistic exchange that would spur innovation and provide exciting new and needed products to the marketplace. With increased funding, there would also be more programs introducing elementary and high school students to the wonders of science, engineering, and, of course, basic research. Universities would be able to do more of the things they should be doing because they would have more money. But that's in a perfect world. I can see the tensions between sharing knowledge and wanting to protect what you're inventing for patenting and marketing purposes.

AE Can you elaborate on those tensions?

MB One concern is collaboration and knowledge sharing. The idea in the academy is that we are all working together in pursuit of knowledge. But when you start thinking about your research as not just patentable but marketable and about the idea of licensing revenues, etc., then collaboration may be inhibited-or the collaboration has to be a lot more structured. In a sense this is what is happening now. In college, I spent one summer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which today touts the fact that it has been partnering with industry for over fifty years, but now the relationships are more structured. With an increased focus on commercialization of inventions, you get into issues of inventorship and ownership. A collaborator from a partnering entity may see a patent issue and say, Wait a minute. I contributed to that, and I'm not listed as an inventor and my organization is not an assignee.

Then there is the issue of access to basic research tools that are being patented. Universities may now have to pay for licenses to use technology that in times past would not have been patented. Some people argue that for some inventions perhaps a for-profit venture would pay royalties and fees, but a not-for-profit would not. Is that a good idea? Should certain inventions be free for everyone to use? If so, and if we minimize or eliminate the incentive provided by patent protection, are we going to continue to get all of these great innovations?

AE Do you think the real incentive for academic research is financial?

MB No, as a former scientific researcher I believe the real incentive is to know more, learn more. Academic researchers could probably make quite a bit more money in industry if that was their prime objective. But I do think financial concerns are increasing in importance. One of the goals of our patent system is to stimulate innovation by granting to inventors the right, for a limited time, to exclude others from making, using, selling, or offering to sell their invention while making the information publicly available so others can build on those ideas. And it works. The United States patent system has definitely played a role in our achievement of the standard of living and technological advancements we now enjoy. From one standpoint, technology transfer may seem to limit the advancement of knowledge, but when you step back, you see the whole idea of the patent system is to encourage innovation.

AE Do you think basic research will survive the alliance between business and the academy?

MB For our long-term success, it must survive. Certainly in corporations, when the focus shifts to the bottom line, basic research always takes a hit. I would hate to see something similar happen in the university setting: basic research taking on a second-class rank because it doesn't clearly generate revenues.

I am by no means an expert on these issues, but if we're concerned about protecting basic research, I believe there are things we can do to protect it. Use very lucrative projects to fund basic research. Provide incentives to researchers in such areas. Reward collaboration. Tech-nology transfer is here to stay, but we can find a balance, so that it doesn't drive the academic research agenda. Boundaries need to be set so that the mission of the academy remains in focus and we still have a place for the free sharing of knowledge and ideas.