Administrators Call for Rewarding Professors’ Patents With Tenure

April 28, 2014

A hundred and thirty-four years after Thomas Edison designed the first commercially practical light bulb, the famed inventor’s tenure prospects were up for debate at a conference of the National Academy of Inventors last year. "Would Thomas Edison Receive Tenure?" a group of panelists asked.

Unsurprisingly, the panelists voiced unanimous support. A vice president for research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham even prepared a signed diploma for the inventor.

Even so, the panelists expressed concern that under many universities’ current tenure and promotion guidelines, a faculty member with Edison’s record of commercial success might not be rewarded for his contributions. Under a tenure system that places a higher value on publications than on entrepreneurship, an innovative professor might face a choice between pursuing commercially viable research ideas and focusing on publishing papers.

Now, in a paper based on last year’s panel, a group of administrators is calling on universities to reward faculty members’ patents and social impact. In "Changing the Academic Culture: Valuing Patents and Commercialization Toward Tenure and Career Advancement," published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors argue that universities are missing a crucial opportunity to translate research into real products by relying on outdated tenure guidelines.

Under the current system, said the paper’s lead author, Paul R. Sanberg, a senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of South Florida, professors are forced to pursue patents and product-based research on the side of their academic work. While senior professors have the freedom to seek licensing opportunities and start their own companies, he said, younger professors are forced to put a lid on some of their most creative projects.

Mr. Sanberg recalled the case of an assistant professor coming up for tenure who told his university that he had to pull back on his work with a start-up company because his department did not recognize those activities.

"He had to fall back and wait until he was in a more secure position," Mr. Sanberg said.

In other cases, he said, inventors decide to forgo academic careers, or get pushed from universities into the private sphere.

"Young people who want to start companies will see the system, and they’ll go, ‘Well, I can’t have the freedom to do the things I really want to do, which is to translate research and benefit society,’" he said.

The paper, whose authors include administrators at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota system, cites a 2012 survey that found that only 25 of the top 200 national research universities consider patents and commercial activities in tenure and promotion decisions. The authors write that pressure on universities to support that work has grown with the dismantling of many large corporate research laboratories. Universities, they write, have been slow to develop the partnerships to fill that gap.

Gains for Universities

Mr. Sanberg said universities stand to gain from emphasizing faculty members’ commercial work. Many universities share royalty and licensing income with professors who develop a product, he said. Encouraging business activity can also push professors thwarted by a shortage of federal research dollars to pursue a growing pot of business-oriented grants, like those from the federally run Small Business Innovation Research program.

The National Academy of Inventors, which hosted last year’s panel, was founded in 2010 to encourage academic innovation. Mr. Sanberg is the group’s president.

Universities that have changed their promotion guidelines have an easier time attracting innovative faculty members, Mr. Sanberg said.

The University of South Florida is one of 39 institutions that the paper notes have incorporated entrepreneurial activities into tenure considerations.

The University of Arizona, for example, recognizes "integrative and applied forms of scholarship that involve cross-cutting collaborations with business and community partners, including translational research, commercialization activities, and patents."

Mr. Sanberg said fears that a focus on commercialization would restrict free access to research knowledge were unfounded. He said patents were designed to reward innovation with some freedom from competition. Like published papers, he said, patents raise the bar of innovation for other people in a field.

And despite the perception that only faculty members in more-lucrative engineering fields support rewards for commercial activity, the paper’s authors argue that support for changes in tenure and promotion guidelines is widespread. The paper cites a 2013 survey of more than 500 faculty members that found that only 20 percent disagreed with rewarding faculty members for patentable inventions. Only 11 percent of history professors disagreed with the recommendation.