Many readers will be familiar with the Bayh-Dole Act, passed by Congress in 1980 to promote technology transfer. The theory behind the act was that universities, small businesses, and other entities doing basic science supported by the federal government would have an incentive to commercialize their research results if they shared in the financial reward. Thus, the government gave up any ownership of the research in favor of the scientists and institutions where the work was performed.
Three decades later it seems fair to ask whether the act achieved its intended result. An issue of the journal Research Policy addresses the subject from several points of view; the two most interesting (at least to me) are as follows:
First, did the Bayh-Dole Act promote entrepreneurship? According to Aldridge and Audretsch if one measures patents resulting from university based research the answer is yes, there has been a substantial increase since Bayh-Dole. However, if startup companies emanating from universities is the measure, the act has been much less successful.
There is a problem with such data—it is based on information gleaned only from university technology transfer offices, which may under represent the various commercialization activities of scientists. The authors of the new study take a different approach—directly asking recipients of grants from the National Cancer Institute about their commercial ventures. With this methodology we learn that about 1 in 4 scientists have been active in research commercialization, a robust number indeed.
The second question of interest is, did the Bayh-Dole act compromise basic research? University explorations are predicated on free and unrestricted inquiry without external interference. There has always been some degree of nervousness that the lure of market potential could sidetrack investigators away from deeper and more pressing scientific problems.
Thursby and Thursby address the question by assessing the invention disclosures and publications of faculty at 8 prominent US research universities. An exhaustive statistical analysis shows that not only is there not a diversion of effort away from fundamental work, but rather that science faculty members with active licensing and commercialization activities are even more effective in basic science productivity as well.
This is good news for scientists who love the pure majesty of their work AND who love the prospect of improving humanity’s lot at the same time.
Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.