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FEATURE: Push Towards Entrepreneurship Raises Eyebrows Among Academic Purists

WASHINGTON, May 2 – When North Carolina State University initiated its new bioinformatics center in March, several leading industry executives were prominently in attendance. Their commitment to the institute, including promises to fund research and offer graduate student internships, underscores a growing fact of life in the life science community: The line between academia and industry is becoming increasingly blurred.

While universities have sought out commercial cooperation, most notably through technology transfer programs that oversee the patenting and licensing of technologies and development of incubators for start-up companies, some critics are concerned.

They say industry’s involvement in academia has had a corrupting influence on research and researchers by dangling a potentially profitable carrot where academic curiosity and professional kudos once sufficed.

“It's outrageous: Half the faculty is out doing their other thing and neglecting their university business. Universities should not be encouraging this, but they want a piece of the action,” said Russell Doolittle, a microbiologist at the University of California San Diego. “Maybe it's good for the economy, but they've sold their soul to the devil as far as I'm concerned.”

Several other prominent scientists have also voiced their concerns about the converging interests of business and academia.

Last year, Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, told a congressional oversight hearing on patenting in genomics that he was concerned about universities’ efforts to mark their territory early in the research process.

“In particular, I am troubled by widespread tendencies to seek protection of intellectual property increasingly early in the process that ultimately leads to products of obvious commercial value, because such practices can have detrimental effects on science and its delivery of health benefits,” Varmus told the committee.

Critics have also warned that the emphasis on commercialization affects the type of work faculty members pursue and discourages basic research, formerly the main concern of universities. Certain grants require that a researcher obtain matching funds from industry, which also tends to favor applied science.

Since 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act made it possible for universities, non-profit research institutions, and small businesses to own and patent inventions developed using federal research funds, technology transfer programs have sprouted around the country. A survey conducted by the Association of University Technology Managers, a group of professionals who oversee intellectual property issues, showed that its 190 responding members filed 5,545 patents in 1999, an increase of 77 percent from 1991.

More than 3,900 new license arrangements were granted, up 129 percent from eight years before. The survey also found that 417 new products developed in universities were introduced in 1999 and 344 new companies were formed.

Today, technology transfer is big business for universities. The institutions responding to the AUTM survey took in $862 million from product royalties and related fees in 1999. Experts said that about 80 percent of this stemmed from the life sciences, mostly molecular biology, adding that about a third of all DNA-based patents are held by universities.

There are intangible benefits as well. A university with a thriving technology transfer system can lure entrepreneurial faculty in up-and-coming fields, since the Bayh-Dole Act requires that a portion of the revenues be shared with the inventor. It can attract industry sponsorship of its research and enhance its prestige by placing its graduates into good jobs.

But in the biological sciences, technology transfer presents some unique issues that don't arise in, for example, the semiconductor field. First, patent owners are claiming property rights to the very stuff of life, the genes, proteins, and processes that make us who we are. There is widespread feeling that much of this information simply belongs in the public domain.

“What if Lewis and Clark had been allowed to patent every plant they came across in their travels?” Doolittle asked.

While scientists may never know the answer to that question, it is clear that universities’ hold over the discoveries made in campus labs is driving the relationship with big business. With universities controlling a third of the relevant life science patents, as compared to less than 10 percent in other fields, pharmaceutical and other biomedical firms are especially dependent on the university technology transfer system.

Small universities anxious to make good on a limited amount of intellectual property are often most troublesome because they sometimes delay licensing patents while they seek a high price for their inventions.

Health advocacy groups that have encouraged their members to participate in clinical studies have sometimes found diagnostic or therapeutic products derived from academic research tied up in patent disputes with university medical centers. Learning from this experience, some disease-specific advocacy groups, such as Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum International, have gone so far as to negotiate intellectual property rights with universities ahead of time.

“They've got the people, and they don't want a situation where the institutions holding the patents have all the control,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, R.W. Johnson Health Policy Investigator at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Nevertheless, technology transfer is a fact of life in academia, and some argue that rather than debate its existence critics should be focused on setting standards that protect academia.

“We need to elevate the discussion out of the licensing offices and into the office of the university president, for a true academic debate,” said Cook-Deegan, who praised universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for setting stringent guidelines and publicly articulating their commitment to high ethical standards through its website.

MIT is an example of “what the world was trying to do with Bayh-Dole. That's not always the same as maximizing the return to the university,” he said. “A lot of the technology licensing offices are treating this the way they'd operate the university shopping center.”