Issue Date: February 19, 2007
Universities Are Not Businesses
The article on the workshop "Enhancing Innovation & Competitiveness through Investments in Federal Research" contained the most delicious irony in the words of Rohm and Haas Chief Technology Officer Gary Calabrese: "U.S. academic institutions are acting too much like for-profit companies" (C&EN, Dec. 18, 2006, page 41).
For decades, I have heard complaints that universities are not run enough like businesses and have useless major departments and ivory tower professors. Now, with the Bayh-Dole Act as an incentive to patent research results and with investment funds willy-nilly helping professors start companies, industry must actually compete and pay market prices for what they once took gratis. Horrors!
Yet, in a sense that I doubt he intended, Calabrese is absolutely right. It was bad enough when some researchers, to maintain their lead over the competition, would leave key items out of their experiments (or worse, avoid presenting them altogether through communications never followed by a full paper). Now, publication is also delayed until the patent is filed. Sometimes, the patent is the only source of experimental detail, rarely meeting the standards required by major journals. And how many graduate students' and postdocs' careers are delayed, or short-circuited entirely, because their adviser-would-be-entrepreneur delays publication further or won't let them publish some of their findings at all?
We see universities refusing to license patents on a nonexclusive basis to small companies that want to sell research quantities of materials because the university can get more money from a big pharmaceutical company through an exclusive license. We even see professors suing their former universities for patent infringement for using their inventions for teaching or research purposes (C&EN, May 26, 2003, page 21).
In "The Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith wrote, "The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public." We aren't about to see professors give up a chance to profit financially from their own achievements, and if they do it outside the university, that's fine.
Universities will not voluntarily stop profiting from their faculties' inventions and perhaps they should not. But universities are not businesses. They are nonprofit, charitable institutions chartered for the public good. We can and should demand that professors conduct their research in a manner that does not conflict with their own students' interests. We should demand that universities license their patents openly and uniformly, in the public good. They should not play favorites for extra income.
Write to your members of Congress and state legislators.
Barry M. Jacobson
Ann Arbor, Mich.
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