Technology Transfer and the Ownership of Science

The Association of University Technology Managers represents professionals in the field of technology transfer and tries to develop and promote best practices in the profession. Universities have seen a significant increase in technology transfer activity. Before 1980, fewer than 250 patents were issued to U.S. universities each year and discoveries were seldom commercialized for the public’s benefit. In contrast, in 2002, AUTM members reported that 4673 new license agreements were signed. Between 1991 and 2002, new patents filed increased more than 310 percent to 7741 and new licenses and options executed increased more than 365 percent to 4673.

The AUTM contributes much of the success in university technology transfer and the resulting economic and health benefits to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980:

Co-sponsored by Senators Birch Bayh and Robert Dole, the Bayh-Dole Act enabled universities, nonprofit research institutions and small businesses to own and patent inventions developed under federally funded research programs. Before the passage of this legislation, new discoveries resulting from federally sponsored research passed immediately into the public domain. The provisions of the act, however, provided an incentive for universities to protect their innovations and, therefore, for industry to make high-risk investments resulting in products made from those innovations.

In 2005, the AUTM launched The Better World Project to explain in everyday terms how academic research and technology transfer have changed our way of life and made the world a better place (their words, not mine, ed). Recently they issued two reports that provide information on technology transfer projects ranging from Honeycrisp apples, Google, the V-chip, nicotine patches and Taxol. The reports are available online:

Technology Transfer Stories: 25 Innovations That Changed the World (1 MB)
and the other one:
Technology Transfer Works: 100 Cases From Research to Realization (1.2 MB)

In 2004, two institutions in New York City accounted for about 20 percent of all revenues reported. Columbia University earned more than $116-million, and New York University reported earnings of more than $109-million. The concentration of licensing revenue among a small number of universities is typical. Eight institutions accounted for more than half of all revenues reported. At least 22 institutions besides Columbia reported earnings of $10-million or more.

Universities share proceeds from commercialization with inventors. Although formulas vary, inventors typically receive about one-third of the total. In many cases, additional allocations from the institution’s share go to their school, department, or laboratory.

Obviously, allowing universities to generate profits for themselves and the companies that license the inventions, while the research is funded by tax-payers, does raise questions and criticism. Who should own science? In the past years, several books have been published that critique the commercialization of research (and other academic capitalist activities in the knowledge factory / university in ruins) or at least point to the risk of the market or the paradox of the marketplace.

Despite all the criticism, the US approach to technology transfer is still used as the model for many non-US universities. Their approach is increasingly being copied in countries in Europe and Asia and other parts of the world.

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