Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The university Bayh-Dole has built, in two short sentences

People have been expressing concern about the effects of the Bayh-Dole Act on universities and scholarship for a long time

but it’s rare to see them summed up so succinctly, and by a champion of this system, no less. Roy Poses at the Health Care Renewal Blog quotes from a Wall Street Journal interview with an academic administrator, listing the various logical fallacies proffered by the interviewee in defending conflicts of interest in academe.
The interviewer asked:
What do you tell professors who won't work with drug or biotech companies?
The response was:
I think that's a huge mistake. If you're a professor now, and you want to get your discovery to society, you either need to start a company or work with a company to commercialize a product.
As Poses rightly responds:
Of course, in the "good old days," academic researchers got their "discoveries to society" simply by publishing them. Developing and marketing products based on their discoveries, while worthwhile undertakings in their own rights, were not considered part of the academic mission. Professors could still do this, if their goal was not to get rich. Yet the Bayh-Dole act allowed academic institutions to make money from their professors' discoveries, and the rush to commercialize the university has been on ever since. So while professors and academic institutions who are motivated mainly by money might not consider just putting the knowledge they discover in the public domain, that course remains possible, just not so lucrative.
We have a system in which professors and university researchers are encouraged to see themselves not as scientists, scholars, or educators entrusted with the production and dissemination of knowledge for the public good, but as entrepreneurs selling their knowledge-products to customers (who in many cases have funded with their tax dollars the development of the products they’re expected to buy).

The interviewee is Susan Desmond-Hellmann, Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, a public university, and former president of product development at Genentech. She’s not an outlier. Hers is merely the plainest expression of a general transformation.

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