Janet Rae-Dupree reports in the New York Times that in less than 30 years, the American university research landscape has changed so dramatically that today "academia could be powered as much by a profit motive as by the psychic reward of new discovery."
Read the full story here.
Before passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, there were only a handful of tech transfer offices at universities nationwide. Today, there are nearly 300 and the number of university patents has grown a hundredfold.
In many cases, universities and researchers are ill-equipped to handle the rigors of the business world and, as the proliferation of tech transfer initiatives continues, those problems can only get worse.
"Professors are stepping away from laboratories and lecture halls to navigate the thicket of venture capital, business regulations and commercial competition," Rae-Dupree reports.
The report goes on to say that "swelling ranks of critics" are concerned that the Bayh-Dole act -- sponsored by former Senators Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) -- may have forever changed the academic research landscape by making it more about dollars than about discovery.
"The primary concern is that its original intent -- to infuse the American marketplace with the fruits of academic innovation -- has also distorted the fundamental mission of universities," Rae-Dupree writes.
Universities, once the bastions of true science, are now all about money. This, the article says, may be stifling innovation as universities race to cash in on breakthrough technologies, rather than sharing their research for the greater good.
"In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today's universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. 'Share and share alike' has devolved into 'every laboratory for itself.'"
In at least one case, a university fired, and then sued one of its professors for being too open about his research with a colleague from another institution.
Stephen Badylak, a researcher for 25 years, found himself in court when the Purdue Research Foundation charged him with patent infringement for collaborating with Alan Spievack, a scientist at Harvard. The two were both working on tissue re-growth technologies.
Though Badylak and Spievack were evedntually cleared in court, the case shows how secrecy is preventing true academic collaboration. In this case, the two researchers shared their work without infringing on each other's patents, but the commercial interests of the university still provoked lawsuits.
The Times story warned that American universities have become obsessed with the business end of things at the expense of innovation.
"In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America's universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses," the article says.