Are universities turning into businesses?

This was the provocative question asked at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) Spring 2001 Policy Conference, held 7 May 2001 in Bethesda, Maryland.

"The university is very much a business," declared Ray White, chief scientific officer of DNA Sciences. More and more higher education institutions are establishing technology transfer offices (TTOs) to deal with the enormous volume of intellectual property that their faculties--"a new generation of entrepreneurs," as White puts it--are developing. At universities, TTOs are "doing deals," negotiating with companies, and must really understand the potential markets for their newly developed technologies.

But Maria Freire, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is "concerned about the university being seen as a business" and told the audience that the top priority for biomedical scientists should be to get their innovations out to the public as soon as possible. "Strategic licensing" and "appropriate patenting" are Freire's mantras--the current NIH stance being that inventions should only be patented if that added protection would help bring that invention drug, vaccine, etc. to the public more quickly. Freire went on to acknowledge the importance of academic institutions and industry partnerships, saying, "If the pipeline is not there, we all lose."

And with more industrial involvement in academic science, conflict-of-interest issues are bound to arise. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Iowa, noted that individual faculty members, and even the institutions themselves, are forging financial ties to companies in the form of equity, consulting services, and paid speaking engagements. It's a tangled web that universities may not be fully equipped to handle. Even patient groups are getting involved, demanding royalties if their cells and tissues are used in developing a new technology. [Editor's note: Next Wave is readying a series of articles on conflict of interest: Stay tuned for more details.]

So, how do academic-industrial ties affect junior scientists? Coleman noted that trainees don't usually share in the financial gains brought about by their work. Also, those academic-industrial partnerships that specify a delay in publishing and disseminating results can adversely affect (or at least restrict) the career prospects of students and postdoctoral fellows.

This begs the question: How should students and postdocs approach research involving academic-industrial collaborations? Although the conference did not deal with this question in detail, it's an important one for junior researchers to consider. Ultimately, what it boils down to is "buyer beware"--you need to know what you're getting into. For example, before getting involved in a hot industrial collaboration, students and postdocs should find out if they will be required to delay publication or if they will be prohibited from speaking at important scientific meetings, particularly if they wish to remain in academia. So, if your PI already has or is considering such a partnership, be sure to ask her or him what kinds of strings may be attached.

So, what do you think about academic-industrial ties. Are universities becoming businesses? If not, then should they? And what have been your own experiences working on industry-funded projects? What are their pros and cons? Share your thoughts and opinions on Next Wave's Forum!