Jennifer Washburn: Don't Kill the Goose

Jennifer Washburn: Don't Kill the Goose

In asking the university to become more commercial in its orientation, we must not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which encouraged universities to patent federally funded inventions, university-industry collaborations have exploded. Universities operate their own venture capital firms to finance start-up companies, hold equity in professors' companies and seek to generate royalty income from their faculty's research -- all of which has brought commercial imperatives directly into the heart of academic life as never before.

America's economic and technological leadership in the postwar era was rooted in large part on the strength of its research university system. Forcing universities to be more market-oriented could have unintended consequences, jeopardizing the health of our nation's education and innovation system. The first concern is whether the growing commercial focus is endangering the public domain for knowledge.

Bayh-Dole was predicated on the notion that universities needed the power to patent government-funded inventions and license them exclusively to private companies. The thinking was that most university research is still so embryonic that to get a private company to invest the resources required for commercial development it was necessary to grant monopoly control over the invention.

Overuse of exclusive licenses threatens to curtail scientific progress by limiting the number of research players in a developing field. Several years ago, a National Institutes of Health working group expressed alarm that universities are no longer freely exchanging basic research tools and reagents among scientists -- even those developed with federal money. Similar concerns surround the University of Wisconsin's decision to exclusively license many of its primate embryonic stem cell lines to one private company, Geron. The NIH recently stepped in to make these cell lines available to academic researchers, but licensing practices such as this do not bode well for the nation's innovation system.

A second concern is the effect of commercialization on the academic culture and the independence of the university.

Cutbacks in public funding have prompted universities to turn to industry for a greater share of their research support. Yet growing reliance on industry money may be jeopardizing the university's ability to perform unbiased research that is free from outside influence.

Numerous studies in the medical field, for example, show that when research is industry-sponsored, the likelihood increases that the results will favor corporate interests. Industry-funded research also is associated with greater secrecy and withholding of data by academic scientists. A Harvard survey of 2,167 life-science faculty in 1997 found that 34 percent had requested and been denied access to research results or products developed by their peers.

Economic historians such as Stanford's Paul David and Columbia's Richard Nelson worry that the intrusion of market forces may be eroding the culture of "open science" within the university.

A final area of concern involves conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment.

In 1999, Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old boy from Tucson, Ariz., died in a gene-therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania. Both the lead researcher, Dr. James Wilson, and Penn itself held stock in a company funding Wilson's lab. Both stood to profit if the experiment succeeded. The deeper problem was that Penn's lead investigators failed to properly report serious adverse events, and they withheld evidence that monkeys undergoing similar treatment had died in earlier experiments.

The mere fact that a professor receives industry funding does not mean that his or her research is necessarily biased, but increasingly researchers have a direct financial interest in the company funding their research or a direct financial stake in the results. Such financial entanglements often extend to universities and their top administrators.

Unfortunately, the university community has failed to come together to establish collective guidelines to adequately regulate these conflicts of interest -- even after the Gelsinger tragedy.

Another issue is conflicts of commitment. Most universities allow faculty members to spend no more than one day per week working on nonacademic projects, such as consulting or serving as CEO of a start-up firm. This time restriction is routinely broken. As schools encourage faculty to become more entrepreneurial, they must be aware that it constrains the time professors have to engage in other important academic duties, such as teaching, advising graduate students and overseeing Ph.D. theses.

These issues must be addressed if the strengths of American research universities are going to be preserved, even as they are asked to play a bigger role in economic development.

The News and Observer (NC) (reproducido en New America Foundation), 16/02/03