University + Industry: It's Complicated

During a recent oral history interview with a retired Dow chemist, Susan B. Butts, one of the topics of conversation was partnerships between industry scientists and university scientists. These partnerships have become increasingly complex and fraught with legal difficulty despite how useful they can be to both industry and academia. This situation is in stark contrast to the very causal collaboration and consultation relationships described in some of CHF’s older oral histories.

Butts explained these partnerships have an array of mutual benefits as well as inherent difficulties due to the potential of intellectual property rights. She argued that the shift towards increasingly formal legal partnerships resulted from the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave universities and other bodies working with federal funds the ability to patent their research. The legal documentation as to who owns the rights to that intellectual property must be decided prior to any university-industry collaboration. 

Many of the CHF oral history interviewees have worked as consultants in university-industry partnerships. One example of the older style existed between Carl Marvel and DuPont, which began in 1928. DuPont already had a consulting partnership with Marvel’s advisor/colleague Roger Adams. Tired of taking the train from Illinois to Wilmington, DE, on a regular basis, Adams suggested Marvel as an additional consultant.  

Marvel never knew what he would be working on until he arrived in Wilmington. Sometimes he did not even know what part of DuPont he would be working in. The funds DuPont paid to Marvel’s students and post-docs were entirely unrestricted. Such partnerships may have been formed on somewhat more than a handshake, but they were nonetheless much simpler than today.

Posted In: History | Policy

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