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Fall/Winter 2010 Vol. 10 Number 3

Table of Contents


Great and Small Pay Off

Many of the products and devices that make our daily lives healthier and easier got their start in a university laboratory. University research led to drugs to reduce the risk of blood clots and pills that combine many HIV medicines, for example, making treatment easier. Other advances big and small include sensors that help children avoid airbag injuries, allergy pills that make us less drowsy, and cat food that reduces hairballs.

The trip from university lab to marketplace got easier after the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act -- better known as the Bayh-Dole Act -- was passed in 1980. Before that, if federal agencies funded research at universities, the agencies generally retained ownership of any technologies or discoveries that resulted. And, at least in theory, they could license this intellectual property to companies to develop it into products and services. In reality, though, most of these discoveries languished for lack of marketing effort; only 5 percent of the 30,000 patents accumulated by agencies prior to 1980 were ever licensed to companies.

Bayh-Dole changed this, giving universities ownership of most of the intellectual property resulting from research they conducted with public funds. A recent report from the National Research Council says the new system has been more effective than the previous one at helping inventions make the leap to public use.

But the system created by Bayh-Dole has not gone uncriticized. Some have argued that the prospect of financial rewards from inventions has subtly affected universities' priorities, shifting them away from curiosity-driven inquiry and toward more potentially lucrative research. Others make the case that individual faculty have been unfairly cut out of the loop on the management of their own inventions, and argue for a system where researchers manage their own discoveries.

The report concludes that Bayh-Dole has not seriously undermined university standards of uninhibited inquiry, however, and that a persuasive case hasn’t been made for switching to a system of faculty ownership. But it also cautions that the current system has room for improvement. Universities need to articulate a clear mission for managing intellectual property -- one that doesn’t predicate licensing on the goal of raising significant revenue. Moreover, faculty who believe their inventions are being mishandled by technology transfer offices should be able to appeal to an independent oversight committee within their institution. More oversight is also needed on a federal level, the report adds, recommending that such responsibilities be assigned clearly among agencies. --  Sara Frueh

Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest. Committee on Management of University Intellectual Property: Lessons from a Generation of Experience, Research, and Dialogue; Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy and Committee on Science, Technology, and Law; Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2010, approx. 128 pp.; ISBN 0-309-16243-2; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.50 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor and professor of chemistry, Washington University, St. Louis. The study was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Robertson Foundation, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an anonymous foundation, FasterCures Center, Milken Institute, HighQ Foundation, Myelin Repair Foundation, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences