In his recent Washington Post article “Innovation’s golden opportunity” Vivek Wadhwa opines that the translation of university research into useful products benefitting the taxpaying American public has largely failed. I respectfully disagree.
Mr. Wadha writes that if universities were a business, they would be bankrupt based on the return on investment represented by income from patent licensing. He speculates that results would be much greater if university technology transfer offices were abandoned with each campus researcher turned loose to fend for themselves in the marketplace. The first observation misses the point. The second wrecks a proven system that is a model for the world in favor of a dubious theory.
If universities were run like businesses, they would not perform basic research designed to push forward the frontiers of learning. Indeed, industry has largely abandoned such research precisely because of its cost and risks. However, basic research is where breakthrough technologies such as biotechnology occur. The U.S. would be in dire straits if universities abandoned basic research seeking short term payoffs.
The current partnership between U.S. universities, teaching hospitals and related non-profit organizations with American industry, while imperfect, leads the world in translating early stage research into products, jobs and new companies. Commercializing early stage research requires significant investments by the private sector. Putting such deals together is not a simple undertaking, which is why the law recognizes the important role played by campus technology transfer offices. Such offices are not established as money making enterprises, but as services to faculty.
Undermining this proven system as Mr. Wadhwa recommends, would have very serious consequences. This would be the worst possible time to throw it out as every state is looking to their research universities, working in partnership with the private sector, to lead another American economic renaissance.
As president of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), an association that represents managers of academic intellectual property, I can point to solid data indicating that such hopes are well founded. The Bayh-Dole Act, the subject of a recent Supreme Court ruling, is the basis for such faith. Rather than being a reason to scrap our system, we need to appreciate how far it has taken us in just 30 years.
Prior to Bayh-Dole, the “best and brightest” in public and private sector research were reluctant to collaborate because the federal government could take ownership to resulting inventions. The result was that federally funded patents were rarely commercialized. This is no longer the case.
- In 2009 in the midst of a serious recession, 596 startup companies formed from university research—81% in the home state of the university.
- Academic technology transfer contributed as much as $187 billion to U.S. GDP between 1996 and 2007.
- During the same nine year period at least 279,000 well-paying jobs were created in the United States because of commercialized university inventions.
- Approximately seventy-six percent of U.S. biotech companies have licensed technologies from our universities.
- The public now has access to 153 FDA approved drugs brought to market since 1980 discovered in whole or in part at U.S. public sector research institutions.
Academic alliances with industry have not harmed science nor diverted universities toward applied research. The U.S leads the world in citations of science and engineering articles across every field of technology. According to the National Science Foundation, the importance of such papers has increased compared to those of our competitors. It is the strength of our public sector science, if translated into economic benefits, which holds the greatest promise for the future of American competitiveness. And it is happening across our nation.
The current technology transfer model is bringing tremendous benefits to the US economy while promoting the everyday welfare of our citizens. However, commercialization, while important, is only one channel. The results of academic research also reach the public through scientific papers, and most importantly, through the students we graduate.
Federal funding of university research benefits society well beyond a monetary return to the university. University discoveries may have no commercial potential, yet still provide significant value to American society, and the larger scientific community. However, it would be shortsighted of universities not to recognize the potential commercial value of some federally funded inventions. We attempt to ensure a fair return that then supports further research, while also benefitting campus inventors for their tremendous contributions to society. And we do this each and every day.
The United States can truly benefit from “innovation’s golden opportunity” — but only if we are wise enough not to strangle the golden goose.