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the December 1999/January 2000 issue on technology transfer
Ideas for Sale
Academic Exchange February/March
2000 Contents Page
economists say, is created when assets are moved from lower to
higher-valued uses. One might therefore argue that technology
transfer--the delivery of academic research into the marketplace--is
simply an expression of a university's pursuit of wealth by exploiting
its basic asset: its ability to discover and implement new knowledge.
Exquisitely aware of the necessity to capture ever larger revenue
streams, today's elite universities are aggressively expanding
their capacity to move their intellectual capital. Emory's success
has hardly been shabby, realizing $5.1 million in royalties from
patented inventions in 1998, five times more than in 1994. As
noted in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of the Academic
Exchange, however, at least some faculty harbor serious worry
over whether the university will progress increasingly towards
scientific entrepreneurialism. Here is a brief list of certain
prominent worries expressed in the last Academic Exchange:
over sharing versus protecting knowledge.
Will the university come to favor technologically transferable
research, as opposed to basic research? Will the occasional need
to safeguard research ideas have a chilling effect on inter-institutional
collaborations? And will certain graduate students be allowed
to write their theses on research their mentors wish to shield
from the (highly competitive, sometimes vulpine) community of
erosion of "core" academic values.
Will the university hell-bent on technology transfer witness
a sea change in professional attitudes, from scholarly, knowledge-for-the-sake-of-knowledge
dispositions to entrepreneurial, wealth-maximizing aspirations?
Will more researchers witness a serious conflict of commitment,
as they spend long hours away from their laboratories and students
to toil over the business details associated with technology
transfer or start-up companies?
of interest. Will today's technology
transfer cliché--"no conflict, no interest"--become
a professional commonplace, much like the managed care cartoons
of a decade ago that today humor no one? While a conflict of
commitment occurs when the time, energy, and focus required for
one project is compromised by time spent on another, a conflict
of interest implicates a different, some might say considerably
more grave, dimension of moral behavior. A conflict of interest
occurs when a competing, personal interest threatens to compromise
the integrity and judgmental objectivity owed to another interest-such
as the temptation to omit certain data from a research publication
because it would cast negative light on the technology onto which
the scientist has pinned high hopes.
"Ah, but then," one might ask, "doesn't every
scientist experience a conflict of interest as he or she considers
how to present data for dissemination, especially if the scientist
wishes to receive continued extramural funding for the research
project?" Perhaps. But if the entrepreneurial scientist
preparing the research publication also happens to own 100,000
shares of Ajax Technologies--which is geared up to market and
distribute the technology in anticipation of Ajax's stock value
skyrocketing--the scientist's temptation to "manipulate"
the data might increase at least a smidgen.
A fundamental question that looms before us, I think, is whether technology
transfer endangers the "soul" of the university or,
as Don Stein put it in the previous Academic Exchange, the university's
ability to maintain its "core" academic values. In
this postmodernist era, whose intellectual credo seems to repudiate
any ultimate, over-arching, or grounding narrative or ideology,
talk about "soul" or "core" is intellectually
unfashionable. While the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of
knowledge may have been a defining characteristic of universities
through the ages, there is nothing--save individual, culture-bound
sentiment and opinion--requiring that that identity (as though
it were some kind of enduring platonic idea or eidos) be preserved.
An avowedly entrepreneurial research university is neither better
nor worse, so the postmodernist would say, than the sedate, nonworldly,
contemplative halls of learning that characterized our universities
of the past. There is no brace of "ultimate" values
to appeal to in order to halt today's university from intending
its intellectual property for the commercial sector and reaping
huge financial rewards. Traditionalists might be horrified at
this prospect, but their belief that they have a privileged insight
into what a university essentially is and ought forever to be
is sheer intellectual hubris. Today's university has a right
to chart its destiny and align its wealth-producing opportunities
as it chooses, especially as our nation seems increasingly to
understand its economic future and, indeed, human relationships
according to a marketplace model.
I have tried to lay out this postmodernist view ominously, even
nihilistically, simply because we need to anticipate it. Nevertheless,
in what follows and drawing on some intellectual hubris of my
own, I'll offer one my chief worries as to how the entrepreneurial
research university might violate the "soul" of academe.
Whether it should be allowed to do so is for us--whoever "we"
may be-to decide.
When I taught undergraduate philosophy, I remember saying something
like, "When X becomes something it is not, then it ceases
to be what it was." The point of this sophomoric tautology
is that any research university's evolving into an entrepreneurial
operation might well turn that university into what it is not:
namely, a business. And to the extent that universities become
businesses, they are no longer universities. Neither one is necessarily
bad, of course. It's "only" that they're not the same.
One crucial contrast, I think, between a business and a university
is how each one's employees understand their opportunity for
fusing their personal with their
professional growth. Our modern, moral understanding of what
it means to be a person, largely derived from Kantianism, is
that I must regard the other person as
an end in him or herself, not as a means. I must not use or manipulate
this person for my own ends because doing so violates his or
her right to live according to his or her freely willed decisions.
Thus, Kant talks about persons as "choosers
of ends," that is, as thoughtful, responsible agents who
intend their moral actions according to or in violation of what
their reason dictates. The more generic picture of the person
that emerges from this, however, is of an individualist who forges
his or her destiny; who projects him or herself onto the world;
whose moral accountability derives from his or her rationally
informed will; who--in a rather lonely, almost existential fashion--looks
to other sources of moral guidance only if those sources, too,
are profoundly rational.
It has always seemed to me that one of the defining characteristics
of the university is how universities have institutionalized
this Kantian vision of persons as choosers of ends. What is so
frankly exhilarating, personally satisfying, indeed, so "soulful"
about the university life is its extraordinary encouragement
of faculty productivity by nurturing personal growth, talents,
and latitude in defining what will count as an individual's ends.
The university is the concrete embodiment of the late Carl Sagan's
muse about one of the happiest days of his life, when at around
the age of ten, he was astounded to learn that people actually
got paid for doing astronomy. Interestingly, if there is a theme
that unifies a university's intellectually maverick, self-actualizing
faculty, it is perhaps the pervasive, collective sense of dignity
that derives from each of us enjoying his or her institutional
acknowledgment as a chooser of ends.
This quality of university life, however, seems uncharacteristic
of a life in business or commerce. One could safely guess that
only a fortunate minority who labor in our nation's factories
or industry find or create themselves in their work (although
chances improve in the "professions"). Their vocational
world may very well not be an end they have authentically chosen
because the products of their labor are not understood to be
essential manifestations of their true selves, but rather ends
chosen by someone else. Thus, the stereotypical expectation of
business seems to be that employees will suppress or set aside
their personal selves so as to cultivate their corporate identities.
My worry is that the university that insists on charting an entrepreneurial
course runs the danger of turning into a business, valuing capital
more than talent. Its personnel might be recruited not with an
eye towards integrating their personal and professional life
journeys but according to whether they can produce a good or
service regardless of whether they identify with it. "Faculty"
at the purely entrepreneurial university might find themselves
increasingly controlled by their own invention as it assumes
a life of its own in the marketplace. If this describes business
as usual, it hardly seems congruent with professional life at
the university. But if the university becomes business, then
it's no longer a university.
So there you have my principal worry as I identify what I take
to be one of the university's essential and immutable aspects
(pace postmodernism). What must happen in any case, I believe,
is that we settle on who defines the soul of academe and the
legitimacy of that definition and its implementation. Obviously,
we look to our leadership. But from whom and how much ought our
leaders take direction? From the university's time-honored mission
and history? From its faculty, governance structure, key committees,
or alumni? From its board of directors? From the marketplace?
Indeed, how is a university like Emory--whose faculty succeed
in wildly varied displays of brilliance, from winning the National
Book Award to securing over a hundred million federal research
dollars--to understand, maintain, and renew "its" unity,
identity, and mission?
What we can at least do, I suggest, is try to achieve some consensus
on the procedures by which such questions ought to be framed
and answered. If there is no longer a transcendent narrative
or brace of values for the "soul" of academe, we may
at least settle on decisional procedures that are just, fair,
and informed. What seems certain, however, is that the institutional
challenges and questions precipitated by technology transfer
will not disappear but intensify. The articles in the previous
issue of the Academic Exchange are therefore an important means
with which to engage the faculty's thoughts on our direction.
Given our (especially recent) history, there are good reasons
to think these issues can be addressed and managed, allowing
Emory's financial resources as well as its humanism to continue
John Banja is an associate
professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and a
faculty associate with the Center For Ethics in Public Policy
and the Professions. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.