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April 13, 2006


To the editor:

Professor [Herbert] Needleman wrote a thoughtful cautionary note (Letters, University Times March 30) to my recent “Senate Matters” column (University Times March 16) that discussed the then upcoming Senate spring plenary entitled “Commercialization of Academic Innovation.” In his letter he raised two primary issues: differences of production and delivery between industry and academia.

The first issue is that the legal and social aspects of innovation commercialization are fundamentally opposite from those of academic discovery. In academia one shares ideas with colleagues and competitors through publication of peer-reviewed papers. In fact, the rush to “publish first” implies open disclosure and open review. Clearly, in the commercial environment, publication, if at all, comes after filing patent disclosures and only the least amount of knowledge needed to be shared is publicly offered. These two philosophical positions are listed as opposite camps. The need to withhold key information pushes academic scientists into the domain of commercial ventures to block the free flow of knowledge. Clearly, there is much truth and worry in that statement. Academicians are routinely informed not to publish their patentable work until the appropriate patent has been filed. Furthermore, when academicians consult with industry they are routinely asked to sign a mutual non-disclosure agreement, so that novel information from industry that may impact on company performance does not get into the public domain. Clearly, such constraints may retard the open transfer of information amongst scientists and from science to society. However, in the balance, such commercialization of academia has not made the open disclosure of knowledge an issue. Investigators who pursue patents and commercialization options usually increase their rate of publication, not decrease it. Furthermore, if one wants the market to use a novel finding or application, increasing market awareness is a central business approach, promoting publication of research. Clearly, the pressure to “publish or perish,” to get strong data necessary to support a federal grant submission needed to support a laboratory or organization is itself a very strong factor tempting academicians to alter their results today. If one assumes that the rules of ethical conduct in the practice and publication of research within the university hold for all faculty, even those engaged in communalization activities, then the ethical aspects of these temptations are already addressed by the University of Pittsburgh. Thus, commercialization through the University has the major advantage of promoting initiatives started within our academic value system and initially funded by federal dollars whose goal is the successful completion and implementation of the funded research. If Professor Needleman had gone to the plenary he would have heard the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Technology Transfer inform potential academic entrepreneurs of the rules, limitations and ethical oversight present at the University of Pittsburgh. As the chairman of this plenary, I was most gratified to listen to all the presenters discuss the balance of academia and industry and the importance of maintaining and documenting an ethical approach when going between the two.

The second issue is that industry is fundamentally different from academia in terms of its contract with society. Again in the extreme this is clearly the case. Business has been referred to as amoral, not immoral. Market share, profit and strategic positioning rank higher in corporate planning that do societal impact and the advancement of knowledge. However, on a purely economic basis, most of the economic growth of businesses in the United States since 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act became law, have been realized in the small-company sector, which are just the companies promoting these commercialization projects. Furthermore, the commercialization efforts of academicians are based on their university-based activities, so the primary thrust of those activities will be to promote things related to funded research. Such research is prioritized by government, presumably for the public good. In essence, this was the reason for the Bayh-Dole Act in the first place: to promote the commercialization of research results from funded activities thought beneficial to society as a whole. Commercialization of academic innovation is not using academics to create innovation for industry. That role is present and is played by academic consults to industry, a relationship unaffected by the Bayh-Dole Act. Commercialization of academic innovation is using the strength of the innovative spirit and findings of the individuals within the university to build partnerships with industry to promote the commercialization of these discoveries to society. The reality is that the Bayh-Dole Act made this partnership law and we need to make sure that the societal safeguards and academic standards are kept in place. In that regard industry and academics are playing from the same book, if not the same chapter.

Michael R. Pinsky

Vice President

University Senate


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