IDEAS FOR SALE


Once you travel down the technology transfer path, there is an underlying temptation to view much of scholarship in terms of patenting opportunities. This mentality warps the scholarly culture of the university.

Lanny Liebeskind, Professor and Chair, Department of Chemistry


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

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


The Academic Exchange In what ways has your work been affected by technology transfer--that is, the delivery of academic ideas into the marketplace?

Lanny Liebeskind My answers to your questions should first be placed in context. I have experienced the technology transfer process first-hand with three different projects in the past five to six years. Although each of these projects represents only a small intellectual subset of my overall research effort, the time and effort involved shepherding each of these through the technology transfer system have been significant.

How has my work been affected? On the positive side, I have learned much about the process of technology transfer, patenting, and licensing. I have learned first-hand about fundamental philosophical differences that exist between the business community and the academy, and about the difficulties associated with any attempt to merge the two. Since all knowledge is valuable, this has been a positive aspect of the experience. On the downside, technology transfer is fraught with many potential hazards, not the least of which is a real or perceived conflict of interest. Technology transfer requires a great investment of time and effort that are unrelated to scholarship. If creative time is a zero-sum game, something precious has been lost and will never be recovered. Furthermore, once you travel down the technology transfer path, there is an underlying temptation to view much of scholarship in terms of patenting opportunities. This mentality warps the scholarly culture of the university. To protect the latter, discipline, good judgment, and administrative oversight are essential.

AE What do you think the role of technology transfer will be in the future of the university? Do you think it offers a solution to the funding crisis in higher education, or is it distracting the academy from its research mission?

LL In the absence of a strong administrative mandate to the contrary, technology transfer will become increasingly prevalent in university settings in the future. A subset of faculty members will be lured by the possibility of profiting, both personally and institutionally, from the intellectual property and know-how generated within the university.

If technology transfer offers a solution to the funding crisis in higher education, it does so only in a very limited way. Yes, there are and will be rare lucrative exceptions to the statement, but much of technology transfer is a time-consuming process with modest financial benefits. Patents alone do not make money for the university; they only serve to prevent others from profiting from the universityís intellectual property. To profit from the patent, a willing and competent licensee is needed, and in order to bring intellectual property through the complete patenting/licensing process, a significant investment of a faculty member's time and energy is required. This results in a very significant, non-financial "cost" to the university, since the process of technology transfer must distract a faculty member from the primary obligations of teaching, research, and service. Even if those obligations are faithfully carried out, we must ask if they are carried out at the same level of excellence and with the same attention to detail that would occur in the absence of the "distraction"?

AE What do you think about the concern for the fate of the basic sciences as increasing emphasis is placed on research that can easily be applied beyond the university?

LL The concern is real and significant. The natural sciences of universities across the country are experiencing a culture shift from the "Professor-Scholar" to a "Professor-Entrepreneur" model. This is happening, in part, because of the freedoms inherent within the university setting, and because of a perception of financial rewards by some faculty and administrators. For these reasons I donít think the culture shift will stop (at least in the absence of a university mandate to the contrary), and I am concerned that we will immutably change the culture of the university if we are not vigilant, thoughtful, and disciplined in managing this shift.

In true scholarship, knowledge is freely disseminated; in entrepreneurship knowledge is a valuable commodity that is protected (patented) and bartered (licensed). These are disparate functions that cannot both be easily carried out within an academic institution without jeopardizing our intellectual integrity to some extent. If they are both part of the university operations, how do we ensure that the scholarly mission of the university is protected from the "bottom line" pressures that a shift toward professorial entrepreneurship will exert on University practices and policies?

It is essential to understand that the most important and world-changing scientific discoveries are not of an applied nature, but are fundamental. It is only later that useful applications evolve from these fundamental discoveries in ways that cannot be foreseen before the fundamental discoveries are made. If University professors spend most of their creative time and effort on applied research (doing what can be and is done in industry), who will make the fundamental discoveries?

AE Technology transfer often seems tainted with the suggestion of conflict of interest--professors holding equity in businesses related to their federally funded research, dual commitments to start-up companies and faculty work. Have you encountered such conflicts in your work? Do you have thoughts on how to resolve them?

LL Although I have worked hard to avoid conflicted situations, I have encountered such conflicts within my own work. In fact, I have come to believe that it is almost impossible to engage in technology transfer within the university without a conflict of interest. Why? Even in the unlikely event that there is no financial conflict, there will very likely be a conflict of commitment. Faculty members appointed for full-time service by the university are expected to devote their time and energy primarily to teaching, service, and scholarship, and implicit in the appointment is a personal commitment to seek knowledge and to freely disseminate that knowledge to society. Time and energy spent on technology transfer and with start-up companies is time and energy not spent on the primary obligations that we are hired to fulfill.

However, an acknowledged conflict of interest need not necessarily prevent technology transfer from proceeding. With oversight from appropriate impartial parties, the conflict can be carefully and regularly managed. If need be, an oversight committee can diminish a faculty memberís involvement in a technology transfer situation, or terminate it completely if the conflict is deemed unmanageable.

What can be done? If we believe that the University can and should benefit monetarily from the intellectual property and know-how of its faculty, the principle challenge is to find a way to reap the rewards that accrue from intellectual property without jeopardizing or corrupting the scholarly mission the university. I see a two-fold solution to the problem. The units of the university (the College and professional schools) should provide and distribute a clear philosophy on technology transfer to the faculty. Are the Deans highly supportive of, ambivalent toward, or opposed to their faculty being involved in technology transfer? For either of the first two philosophical positions, well thought out regulations, policies and procedures must be in place. But, these are always subject to personal interpretation, and in fact, rules and regulations do not enhance the scholarly ethos of the University. Rather, they often represent a framework through which loopholes are sought. Perhaps more importantly, I would constantly communicate the following mission statement to the faculty of the university:

In addition to teaching, a principle mission of the faculty is scholarship ñ the discovery and free dissemination of knowledge. When this principle mission drives the actions and intentions of the faculty, the University is functioning well and its actions are above reproach. A principle mission of the faculty is not the pursuit of new knowledge for the purpose of developing intellectual property of commercial value. Given this difference, a natural tension exists between scholarship and entrepreneurship. Technology transfer can bring clear value to the University, BUT it should do so only when it is a secondary, not the primary consequence of scholarship. This must be clearly communicated and constantly reinforced.

Therefore, on a regular and recurring basis, I would encourage the Deans to persuade their Chairs to ask their faculty to evaluate their actions and intentions in terms of the scholarly mission of the University. I would confront the issue of intellectual property head-on, openly acknowledging its value to the University, but clearly defining its role as a secondary consequence of scholarship. Constant reinforcement of these ideals, through word and deed, will affect the Emory ethos in a most positive and lasting way.