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Tech-Transfer Community Must Educate 'Misinformed' Critics, Former Senator Says

SAN FRANCISCO – Citing “warning clouds on the horizon” that threaten a bill that has helped give rise to modern academic technology transfer, former US Senator Birch Bayh last week urged members of the Association of University Technology Managers to refute recent criticisms of the legislation and educate “misinformed” opponents.
 
He also called on the tech-transfer community to closely examine why research dollars from US-based industries are more frequently being used to fund research at foreign institutions.
 
Bayh, who co-wrote the legislation, called the Bayh-Dole act, said critics argue that “universities and researchers should not be entitled to financial reward because they’re not manufacturing anything,” and that the law “creates the incentive for universities and researchers to ignore basic research and to be motivated like crack addicts driven by small-minded tech transfer offices addicted to patent royalties.”
 
He also said critics contend “there should be no exclusive licenses to IP because the research is taxpayer-funded and should therefore belong to all.”
 
"And there are others,” said Bayh. “We’ve allowed our critics to dominate the public forum for too long.” Bayh did not cite the source of these criticisms.
 
Addressing some of the these criticisms, Bayh said, “We specifically wrote in language [in the act] that universities give researchers a little taste of the royalty pie. This was not to make them rich. Researchers by nature want to share knowledge. We want those researchers who know about these subjects more than anyone else to help scientific ideas [translate] to the medicine cabinet.”
 
In addition, Bayh said that before the Bayh-Dole act, some 96 percent of patents were “sitting there collecting dust,” and that in the years before the act, there was “a $30-billion investment in research that resulted in no return to the taxpayer.”
   
“The people opposing [Bayh-Dole] are not evil, or vile, but just misinformed,” Bayh said. “We have to educate them, and we also need to form an oversight of the executive branch.”
  
Bayh, who is currently a practicing lawyer with Washington, DC-based firm Venable, said that the one thing that concerns him the most about the current state of Bayh-Dole is that industry, in many instances, appears to be more interested in supporting research at foreign institutes than in the US, although he didn’t provide specific statistics to back his claim.
 
“Why would US companies that exist in many cases because of Bayh-Dole now look elsewhere?” he asked. “We need to collectively examine why that’s happening.”
 
He suggested that AUTM convene “a forum where you can sit down with your peers in industry and find out what’s wrong. If our government, our universities, and our industries are not able to cooperate … we’re going to be sliding back to prior to Bayh-Dole.”
 
Easy Target? 
 
The Bayh-Dole act, sponsored by then-Indiana Democrat Bayh and Republican Robert Dole of Kansas, was enacted by Congress in 1980. The act gave US universities and non-profit research institutes control of inventions resulting from federally funded research, and essentially launched the tech transfer sector.
 
The legislation has always had its critics, but has more recently has come under fire from the media, lawmakers, and others. At the AUTM keynote, panelist Katherine Ku, director of Stanford University’s Office of Technology Licensing, cited a September 2005 Forbes article that called Bayh-Dole a complete failure at worst and counter-productive at best.
 
More recently, an article published in the January issue of The Scientist suggested that fewer tech-transfer deals are being completed due to a disconnect between tech-transfer offices, individual researchers, and industry.
 
Outgoing AUTM President John Fraser subsequently issued a statement refuting many of the article’s claims and citing statistics supporting the success of tech transfer at American universities.

The complete version of this article appears in the current issue of Biotech Transfer Week, a GenomeWeb News sister publication.

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