Source: Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle, June 11, 2001
A report released today suggests how universities can continue taking research money from corporations while avoiding the pitfalls and conflicts that come with such collaborations.
For roughly two decades, federal and state policies have encouraged universities and professors to patent inventions, license their work to industry and accept corporate research support for new projects.
The report, titled “Working Together, Creating Knowledge: The University- Industry Research Collaboration Initiative,” provides an overview of these corporate-academic links.
Written by leading academic, corporate and governmental research officials, the report reinforces the belief that university-industry coziness has helped the United States retain world leadership in fields such as computing, software, telecommunications and biotechnology.
But as ties between the boardroom and the classroom have increased, so have concerns about potential conflicts and instances of outright scandal. In 1998, for instance, corporations provided $2 billion for academic experiments, about 9 percent of all research funding at U.S. colleges and universities.
By no coincidence, by the late ’90s ample evidence was surfacing that all this corporate cash didn’t come without consequences. There were scandals involving prominent biomedical researchers, who had financial interests inand subjected volunteer patients to risky experiments.
More subtle but no less troublesome were suggestions that researchers who took corporate funds were more likely to publish good news and suppress bad news from their experiments and put out lower-quality work in general.
“Studies suggest that academics with a high proportion of corporate support publish less frequently and produce work that has less impact,” said Mildred Cho, a researcher with the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics who has studied the effects of corporate funding on universities.
Against this backdrop, the new report takes the position that the benefits of academic-industrial partnerships outweigh the dangers, provided universities avoid the abuses critics have identified.
“Universities should be mindful that research should not be driven, much less colored, by commercial interests,” said Nils Hasselmo, president of the Association of American Universities and a co-author of the report.
The 117-page report sets out a variety of prescriptions that include tightening up conflict-of-interest policies and resisting corporate efforts to limit what scientists can publish or how quickly they can disclose experimental results.
Although companies may want to postpone publication to avoid tipping off competitors, such delays can affect the university’s primary mission of training graduate students to become scientists. “It is not unusual,” the report said, “for a student involved in an industry-sponsored project to take six months longer to earn a.D.”
The University of California figured prominently — if not always positively — in the report. On the upside, UC came in second among academic institutions that earn money from inventions patented by the university and licensed to private companies.
Patents filed by UC professors earned $74 million in fiscal 1999, behind the $89 million that Columbia University earned from its patents. Stanford University placed eighth, with $27.7 million in 1999 licensing income.
Although the report covered every form of public-private research, from engineering to software to food stuffs, corporate-university partnerships seem to be most critical to biotechnology. UC, for instance, derives 95 percent of its patent income from biomedical inventions, the report noted.
“I don’t think the biotechnology industry would exist without university- industry collaborations,” said Lita Nelsen, director of technology licensing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Almost every new biotech company traces its origins directly to an agreement with a university.”
Hank McKinnell, chairman of Pfizer Inc. and another co-author of the report, said other nations are copying the U.S. formula for industrial innovation built around corporate-university ties. He said the report detailed “the best of times and the worst of times” in this regard.
As an example of the best collaborations, the report highlighted a 20-year partnership between Washington University in St. Louis and the drug discovery division of what was then Monsanto Corp. (and is now Pharmacia). The report noted that the university limited Monsanto’s influence by capping its support at 5 percent of the research budget. In return, Monsanto got first crack at licensing any discovery that it helped fund.
McKinnell said a controversial deal between UC Berkeley and Novartis represented the other extreme. That 1998 agreement allowed for Novartis to contribute about 30 percent of the research budget for Berkeley’s department of plant and microbial biology. “In return,” the report said, “Novartis gets a first look at virtually all discoveries produced by department scientists, including inventions that Novartis didn’t fund.”
Gordon Rausser, the Berkeley faculty member instrumental in negotiating the Novartis deal, said Washington University shouldn’t be held up as a model because it allows Monsanto too much ability to direct research toward the company’s interests.
“Under the Berkeley-Novartis agreement, the faculty controls the research agenda, as well as the individual research projects,” Rausser said.
The report is being sent to the chief executives of Fortune 100 companies, leading academics, elected officials and policy leaders who have university oversight. A spokesperson said the report will be freely available via the American Council on Education Web site (http://www.acenet.edu/bookstore/pdf/working-together.pdf).
William Lacy, vice provost at the University of California at Davis and a commentator on university-industry partnerships, said the key point to remember is that negotiations between campus and corporate officials never occur in a vacuum. A company hot to collaborate with a top academic might sign one type of deal. A campus hurting for money might bend over backward to accommodate a company’s demands.
“Partnerships rarely start from an equal basis,” Lacy said, adding that what worries him is that as California’s budget pressures put the squeeze on campus funding, academics might enter the next round of negotiations at a disadvantage.
UC Patents at a Glance
— Professors at the nine University of California campuses created 875 inventions last year.
— The university received 300 new patents last year on inventions that it had previously registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
— UC, which seeks to license its patents to businesses, wrote 170 new royalty-sharing deals last year. This activity earned UC about $77 million in royalty income.
— The most valuable single license was for the Hepatitis-B vaccine developed at UCSF. It brought in $26.4 million. Although licenses in the medical field topped the list of income generators, agricultural inventions contributed a share. UC Davis earned $2.2 million in royalties last year for its development of the large, tasty Camarosa strawberry.