Wrighton-led NRC committee report on tech-transfer released

Thirty years ago, federal policy governing inventions arising from publicly funded research underwent a major change. The Bayh-Dole Act passed in 1980 gave universities ownership of such inventions and great latitude in exercising their associated intellectual property rights.

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the act, the National Research Council (NRC) convened a committee of 18 academic and industrial experts chaired by Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, to review the experience with the Bayh-Dole system and to recommend improvements.

The NRC committee’s report, “Managing University Intellectual Property in the Public Interest,” was released Oct. 1. The NRC functions under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The movement of intellectual property from universities to new and mature companies is a healthy process, but one that can be improved,” Wrighton says. “Our committee’s report provides some recommendations for those involved in this transfer of knowledge.”

The Bayh-Dole system is “unquestionably more effective than its predecessor system,” in making research advances available to the public, according to the report. Before Bayh-Dole, inventions belonged to the government unless an agency waived those rights.

The only alternative to Bayh-Dole that has attracted significant support is one giving university faculty greater autonomy in managing their inventions. But it remains unclear that faculty entrepreneurs would do a better job of commercializing inventions, according to the report.

Bayh-Dole has significantly increased technology transfer activity, but it has nevertheless generated a good deal of debate about whether it is as effective as it could be — and even whether it sometimes works in ways that run counter to the norms of the university community.

The committee found little evidence to support concerns that the pursuit of commercialization undermines the traditional mission of universities.

One possible exception is a new reluctance in the life sciences to share “material inputs” to research, such as stem cell lines. A survey covering the period 1997-99 showed that 10 percent of such requests were denied, and, by 2003-04, that number had risen to 18 percent.

The committee found it harder to evaluate the effectiveness of the current system, in part because the metrics now used to measure the success of technology licensing offices (such as the number of patents issued or license agreements concluded) provide little leverage to answer this question.

The committee called for universities and federal agencies to develop metrics that better measure technology transfer and its social and economic impacts.

In the meantime, based on its findings during open meetings and a conference and the results of research it commissioned, the committee made a series of 15 recommendations for improving the existing system.

Copies of “Improving University Management of Intellectual Property in the Public Interest” are available from the National Academies Press; (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at nap.edu. A podcast of the public briefing held to release this report is available at national-academies.org/podcast. A PDF of the entire report is available at nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13001.