Gulf Commons

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may be now 100m gallons and is a decade or worse-class disaster. The question arises whether university research has anything to contribute to mitigate the adverse effects of the spill. One would think so, and lots of it. Aside from deep water operations to permanently cap the well, there would appear to be all sorts of needs–oil containment and removal from the water, shoreline technologies to direct and remove oil, plant and wildlife recovery, and economic development for communities in hard hit areas.

University research does have an important role to play, if it mobilizes for it. While some research is basic and is not intended to produce applications, other work is applied and should be available for field test. Even limited implementations, were they to save a beach or a shellfish bed, would represent an important contribution.

More than this, universities can play a role in partnering with companies that have technologies already in development, to provide independent testing to fast-track review of possible interventions. The combination of small company and university research lab especially may help to give visibility to technology that otherwise may be lost in the noise.

Another area where universities may help is in adapting entrepreneurship programs to address needs of communities that are being hurt by the spill. On one front, these programs may be able to infuse leadership in local responses to the spill. On another, they may provide alternatives to lost livelihoods.

As a start, universities can create a technology commons by reserving rights in research inventions that could be used to mitigate the effects of the Gulf oil spill. Doing so would lower the overhead of acquisition, raise the visibility of research inventions, and encourage rapid partnerships between university research investigators and companies, state and local governments, and community leaders. To participate in a commons, a university need only make a public announcement that technologies on a list they create are available to be made, have made, and used for Gulf oil remediation without formalities beyond notification of reliance. For exclusively licensed technologies, universities can work with their licensees to identify implementations that would benefit Gulf states, either by encouraging the licensee to participate in the commons or by redirecting their efforts to develop a field ready version of a technology that would support Gulf oil interventions.

For universities that hesitate: are you really intending to sue to block local implementations of your technology, or to give a licensee the right to do so?

It would be something of a shock if the answer to this crisis from the universities was: we don’t have any technology that could help at this time—all of our stuff is too early or untested or licensed exclusively to companies focused on other things or we don’t want to contribute because we will make more money trying to license without getting distracted by the Gulf oil spill, bad as it is.

So what has university research created that would help in this situation?

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