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No Conflict, No Interest
Ethical considerations in technology transfer
By John Banja, Associate Professor, Rehabilitation Medicine


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From the December 1999/January 2000 issue on technology transfer
Ideas for Sale

 


Academic Exchange February/March 2000 Contents Page

Wealth, 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:

Problems 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 scientists?

The 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?

Conflicts 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 to prosper.

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 jbanja@emory.edu.