House of Cards – Bad for the Greater Good?

I have spent more than half of my professional career, which is now closing out a second decade, emphasizing the importance of academic technology transfer.

You might assume then, that I welcome the ideas put forward in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

You might very well think that. I could not possibly comment.

In a paper titled “Changing the academic culture: Valuing patents and commercialization toward tenure and career advancement” the authors note that with the closing of corporate research labs, it has been necessary for academic institutions to develop the innovations that drive the economy.

There are several advantages to an innovation culture at academic institutions.  The development of industrial relationships that is at the core of technology transfer tends to generate new opportunities, in the form of contracts and consulting engagements, as well as the funds from licensing used to sponsor additional research.

At some institutions, including my own alma mater, this expands education, even at the undergraduate level.

While we can identify some success stories, the paper also states something that is consistent with what I have seen at multiple institutions:

Beyond the monetary benefit of licensing, which is small in most cases, there is little or no benefit to a faculty member’s merit raises, tenure, and career advancement. Current policies, at best, mostly tolerate commercialization efforts. Only the few persistent faculty entrepreneurs consider building their careers along these lines, despite this misalignment of rewards.

With the exception of institutions that are outwardly entrepreneurial in nature, tenure policies tend to place significant weight on research funding and publication. This remains true even where a technology transfer process exists, and even where it is noted as part of the institution’s external engagement.

Two reasons for this are that the qualitative return to the institution from technology transfer is difficult to determine, and the direct quantitative return has been historically small. An analysis that I performed on the results of the AUTM licensing survey, for a poster session a few years ago, showed that the total licensing revenue from all respondents was only 4% of total research funding. Skewing results even further, just 7% of all respondents accounted for more than 50% of that revenue.

In order to support the innovative environment, it may be necessary for academic institutions to hold a more expansive view regarding the contributions of their faculty, and in particular, the indirect benefits of technology transfer. There is no simple answer, as each institution needs to identify just how innovation supports its unique culture and mission.

With that in mind:

The purpose of tenure was to provide academic freedom, so research and analysis were not subject to influence at the threat of arbitrary dismissal, by a board or high level administrator. The paper makes a point that current requirements to obtain tenure themselves influence research and faculty behavior, to the detriment of innovation.

A policy that looks to include technology transfer may provide more flexibility in recognizing contribution, or it may simply create influence in a different way.

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