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Technology Transfer in Higher Education

"Technology transfer" is the commercialization of research results. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-517; U.S.C. 200-212) allows universities to own and manage patents that are based upon the research of their faculty when such research is funded by the federal government and therefore paid for by the public.

Encouraged by the spectacular success of Stanford University in turning the research of its faculty to huge profits for that university, other major research universities, such as Harvard, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, led a burgeoning movement toward marketing the intellectual property and research product of faculties at our nation's leading research universities. By 1996 more than 250 universities were involved in technology transfer activities (Bertha, S. L., 1996, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 51:59–73). By early 1999 more than 60 universities had their own technology-transfer sites on the Internet.

This movement toward commercialization of research at research universities appears to have been driven by either real or perceived changes in the funding base of universities away from the federal sector. Universities, it is thought, must rely more and more upon their own ability to generate nongovernmental funding to support their enterprise. Faculties at many of these universities are just now becoming aware of the implications of this movement toward technology transfer and are beginning to express concern about the impact that it is having on the fundamental essence of the university, its culture and values and, indeed, the future of higher education.

Some areas of concern include a) the effort that should go into the teaching of students as opposed to the effort needed to produce new wealth through technology transfer; b) abridgement of the openness with which scholars have traditionally communicated the results of the research to their students, colleagues and others, both within and outside of the university; and c) the willingness of faculty to undertake highly imaginative, speculative and often long-term research as opposed to the pursuit of research that might result in more immediate commercial benefits to the university.

At some universities it appears that publication of the results of a doctoral student's research may be suppressed until the university can obtain patents to ensure its ownership and ability to market that research. Faculty who seek promotion and tenure must now worry over which will be the more critical factor in determining whether promotion will occur and tenure will be granted: the quality of one's research or the marketability of that research. Viewed as a problem in the ownership of intellectual property, the dilemma is not restricted to engineers and scientists, since universities are now entering into the marketing of faculty members' textbooks and other writings. Why should a university not market an opera, a book of poetry or a painting that is produced by one of its students or a faculty member?

It seems clear that technology transfer is now an irreversible part of the modern research university. It remains for faculty and students to insist that reasonable and responsible guidelines be adopted by university managers to ensure that the traditions of teaching, research, and service that have been the hallmark of our great universities, be protected and nurtured in this new environment of commercialization.

Peggie J. Hollingsworth
President, Sigma Xi

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