Report Urges Universities to Be More Realistic in Tech-Transfer Hopes and Deals

October 04, 2010

Technology transfer should be a high priority for research universities, but they should become more realistic about the limited potential for making lots of money from the commercialization of their research, says a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

When it comes to making money, "the likelihood of success is small, the probability of disappointed expectations high, and the risk of distorting and narrowing" the dissemination of new knowledge broadly in society through other means is exacerbated, warns the report, "Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest."

Developed by a panel of 18 academic and industry officials over the past two years, the report's 15 recommendations also include a call for universities and federal science agencies to devise a system to better measure the broader social and economic impact of technology transfer. Such a new system, the report says, should go beyond existing surveys that now tally things like patents, licenses, and royalty income.

Perhaps reflecting the interests of its corporate members and the complaints often raised by industry about universities' driving hard bargains for the commercial rights to their intellectual property, the report recommends that institutions be more generous in offering terms to research sponsors in industry and be more willing to give them full ownership of research they have sponsored. (The Rochester Institute of Technology and other institutions have been experimenting with such a model.)

The report rejects suggestions like the "free-agency" proposal pushed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which would allow faculty inventors greater leeway in managing how their research findings are commercialized with approval from their university. But the report does urge universities to rely more heavily on the expertise of faculty members and experienced business people in day-to-day operations and oversight of their often-criticized technology-transfer operations.