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Note to Companies: Universities Not for Sale


Ever have a burning question after listening to a talk at a conference, but haven’t asked? Nina Siegler, director of the office of technology transfer at Johns Hopkins University, says she’s that person who goes up and asks the “obnoxious questions” everyone else is just thinking.

So at a recent Association of University Technology Managers meeting in Norfolk, Va., attendees got to hear Siegler’s views on companies sponsoring research at universities. Her basic grievance is that universities are not contract research organizations, and companies seem to forget that. “We don’t do work for hire,” she said in a later interview.

Siegler says this is a problem she hears about, and has seen, in various academic institutions. “It’s a fact of life that university transfer and research offices are understaffed and overworked. So there is an advantage for the companies from the start.”

That advantage comes into play when companies make demands against university policy. According to Siegler, they’ll often suggest keeping trade secrets or withholding publication of research results — all of which are anathema in academic circles. “It’s the same thing they would do with another company,” she says. But since the universities don’t have the resources (legal or financial) that companies tend to have, they’re more vulnerable to the corporate demands. “They have quite a bit of leverage because they [can be] the only source of funding to develop a project,” Siegler explains.

What’s the solution? Due diligence from the companies, Siegler believes, and a respect for the academic environment. “You can’t deal with us the way you would a CRO.”

— Meredith Salisbury


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