The President’s Blog – the National Research Council’s Report Finally Issues

By Ashley Stevens posted 10-04-2010 12:26


On Monday, the National Research Council issued its long awaited Report “Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest” which was written by a committee chaired by Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor and professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis. The committee had been working on the Report for almost three years. I and other AUTM leaders gave testimony to the committee.

The report is particularly timely since we are only two months away from the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act.

The committee has done an outstanding job of understanding the complex, multi-faceted technology transfer process that operates in the United States. The first chapter of the report is an insightful and accurate account of how the system operates, and analyzes AUTM Annual Licensing Activity Survey data extensively. The second chapter provides a comprehensive review and synthesis of the many, frequently conflicting academic studies about technology transfer and its impact.

The report is highly positive for technology transfer, and you should forward it to your management structures for them to read.

One of its conclusions is to endorse the U.S. model of institutional ownership and responsibility for managing the intellectual property (“IP”) created in academic institutions. The committee dismisses the pre-Bayh-Dole model of government ownership of the results of federally funded research (while making some innovative suggestions for consideration for new ways to manage the IP generated in corporately sponsored research). They consider the alternative of giving the IP to the professor-inventor that has recently been proposed by the Kauffman Foundation. They identify problems with this approach and most importantly point out that there is no empirical evidence to support the Kauffman proposal (and indeed one study from Sweden, where professors still own their inventions, that argues in favor of the U.S. system). The committee notes that the Institutional-ownership model has become the norm in most of the world).

The committee identifies eight different mechanisms of technology transfer, of which licensing of IP is number eight and correctly comments that:

The licensing of IP, although not the most important of these mechanisms, is more often discussed, measured, quantified, and debated than all other mechanisms combined…!

The committee makes 15 recommendations. While some of these relate to individual institution’s policies and will need to be evaluated at each institution, I concur in principle with all of the recommendations. In particular, I think that Recommendation 1, that institutions establish that the mission of their technology transfer offices is to maximize the dissemination of technologies for public benefit and not to maximize revenue, is particularly important. It would be highly beneficial if the top leadership of institutions would publicly endorse and support this principle.
The paper Irene Abrams and I recently published in Research Management Review, which the committee did not review, shows that depending on the measure of driving force you look at, revenue maximization is the driving force at from two percent to 20 percent of TLOs, with a most likely value of 11 percent. However, the study was done three years ago, before the severe downturn, and anecdotally, revenue maximization as a driving force has increased in the interim.

We will need to work with organizations like AAU to make sure this message gets to university leadership. Most of us make this point whenever we can (except maybe on budget day) but now the report gives you solid ammunition to make this case.

Recommendation 2 is that institutions with large research endeavors should establish advisory committees which include members of the business community. Many institutions already have patent committees which oversee technology transfer efforts within the institution, but these are normally comprised of faculty and administrators and do not involve external stakeholders. Conversely, many institutions already have broad-based committees with external representation which review proposals for translational research funding. This recommendation will need to be evaluated by individual institutions for its applicability to their situation, culture and environment.

Recommendation 4 is that smaller institutions seek innovative ways to create a technology transfer capability other than by establishing a “full service” technology transfer office. AUTM has established a task force to identify ways that Minority Serving Institutions, which rarely have the level of inventive activity to justify a full technology transfer office, can nonetheless establish mechanisms to support those of their faculty who do have innovative, commercializable ideas.

The committee endorses the “Nine Points to Consider” document, drafted under the auspices of Stanford University and promulgated by AUTM in Recommendation 6. AUTM has several additional initiatives underway to establish best practices in other areas of technology transfer and will be sharing these with you and soliciting your input soon.

One of these areas is covered by the committee in Recommendation 8, that in the future institutions should cease requiring material transfer agreements as a routine matter. AUTM is currently reviewing a proposal from a group of universities to promulgate such a collective understanding.

The strongest criticism of AUTM in the report is in Recommendation 15, which addresses AUTM’s failure to establish additional metrics to capture the public benefits and impact of technology transfer. We are of course actively engaged in efforts to implement creation of an enhanced set of metrics for technology transfer, but nothing has been delivered yet. The core input and output measures that AUTM has been collecting for 20 years are the metrics that are readily available within a technology transfer office with minimal cost to collect and report. The committee’s criticism may be a little unfair -- collecting additional metrics that better measure the societal impact of technology transfer offices may incur additional costs and not be within the expertise of technology transfer offices, necessitating involvement of other groups within institutions.

Another excellent recommendation is Recommendation 14, that there be a clear assignment of responsibility within the federal government for oversight of technology transfer. AUTM feels that having a single point of contact within the federal government will facilitate efforts to enhance the technology transfer process and its contribution to the US innovation ecosystem. One of the exciting things about the current environment is that the Obama Administration understands the importance of what we do and wants to help. It will be important for the initiatives that result be well coordinated, and implementation of this Recommendation will greatly help.

This is an excellent report, and I commend it to you and your senior management.