Basic research robust in face of more university patenting

September 10, 2007 By Madeline Fisher

As universities continue transforming scientific discoveries into potentially lucrative patents, many wonder how this might be transforming academic science itself. Some critics contend that commercial interests are changing university research from a publicly funded enterprise performed for the social good into one pursued for private purposes and monetary gain.

A University of Wisconsin—Madison study of more than 1,800 U.S. life scientists now indicates this may not be true. Despite an explosion in academic patenting in recent years, most life science professors still do research the "old-fashioned" way, say agricultural and applied economic professors Brad Barham and Jeremy Foltz: by winning federal grants, publishing results in scientific journals, and graduating Ph.D. students.

"Change isn’t the story," says Barham. "Resilience is the story."

In an online survey of agricultural, medical, and other life scientists at the nation’s top 125 universities for biological research, the economists found that 90 percent of researchers held one or fewer patents, and just 8 percent had received patent revenues. Moreover, federal funds from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made up 67 percent of the group’s total research budget, while industry funding contributed just 5 percent.

In fact, 53 percent of scientists reported no commercial ties whatsoever, such as invention disclosures or company board memberships. In short, says Foltz, "the connection to commercialization appears to be marginal in terms of funding the overall research enterprise."

The findings should reassure those concerned with preserving the country’s longstanding model of basic, publicly supported and openly shared research. But they also come amid flattening budgets at NIH and other funding agencies, a trend that has some officials – including the U.S. presidential science advisor – suggesting that scientists must learn to rely more on industry and other nonfederal sources to support their work.

Universities may be unwittingly encouraging this thinking when they trumpet the possible monetary returns of academic research, caution Foltz and Barham.

"Our study suggests that commercialization really means relatively little in terms of resource flow to life science research at U.S. universities, and yet there’s a big push being made for commercialization of life science," says Barham. "If this gets in the way of public support for research, then we’re in trouble."

When the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act gave U.S. universities the right to patent inventions made with federal dollars and license them to companies for profit, university patenting began to soar. Since then, the number of patents issued annually has grown from roughly 40 to nearly 800 in the life sciences alone, and with them other commercial endeavors, including licensing arrangements and faculty spin-off companies.

Curious as to how these activities might be reshaping the mission of universities, Foltz and Barham conducted a survey in 2005 of 1,822 professors randomly selected across a wide range of life science disciplines. As the largest general survey of biological scientists in more than a decade, the study stands in contrast to other, similar investigations, which have focused on individual departments or institutions, or certain groups, such as medical scientists.

One major question the economists aimed to address is whether research productivity – measured as number of journal articles – suffers when scientists get involved in commercial ventures like patenting. "Do articles and patents go together?" says Foltz. "Or are there tradeoffs, because if you’re working on one, you’re not working on the other?"

What they found is that the two indeed complement one another, suggesting that important discoveries can serve both research and commercial purposes without much cost. "It seems that coming up with a good idea is the main cost," says Barham, "not the extra effort needed to produce the patent or the article."

The economists also found that higher percentages of industry funding neither hurt nor helped research productivity. Instead, federal funding was the driving force, with scientists who had greater percentages of federal support consistently publishing larger numbers of papers.

Some of the most interesting findings came from an examination of patent revenues. Not only had just 8 percent of scientists received them, but the money was highly concentrated as well. One researcher in the sample reported $24 million, two others got $1 million each, and the rest split another $1 million, for a median gain of $5,000 each, or two percent of their research budgets.

In other words, patenting is like a lottery that mostly yields nothing, sometimes pays a little, and once in a great while hits big, says Foltz. "Put a patent in – that’s your scientific lottery ticket," he says. "But you can’t run a lab on a lottery."

This doesn’t mean patenting and licensing aren’t worthwhile, the economists emphasize, just that so far patent revenues haven’t been able to support a wide range of research. That’s why universities should make sure that citizens and policy makers understand the other benefits, such as economic development and products that enhance human welfare, says Barham.

"Our concern is that since federal money really is the mainstay of university research funding, universities need to make the point that the public commitment is still huge," he says. "Otherwise, people are likely to say, ‘We don’t need to commit more money to research, because commercial money will come in. Universities are making a big push there, so we don’t need to worry.’"