The Bozonet as a Green Cat

I have been playing around with Pearltrees, which is a way of representing bookmarks graphically, adding comments, and making them available to others.  If you go to the main Pearltrees site and in the box by “Learn more or explore Pearltrees” type “bozonet” you will go to one of these trees, where I am parking various documents that point out how we can manage to organize even stuff we don’t really understand, and then make a virtue to a fault of the tidiness of the organization even if it is utterly failing.

In a bozonet, status becomes more important than outcomes, or, another way, status is the important outcome.   The goal then is to somehow combine status with acceptable other outcomes, at least to appear to be productive in the annual report.  Ride this for as long as one can, then move on before anyone competent closes in.  Nothing here unexpected.   There’s a Pearl (as they are called, sigh) there (Article 60, near the top) about “skilled incompetence”–people who fail to speak up for their positions in the hope that making nice socially is a better thing than carrying one’s professional responsibilities and practice experience.  The Five Dysfunctions of Teams (also there), while being overly optimistic by using “The”, gets at similar problems in not speaking up, and speaking up in useful ways.  Survival in a failing organization–at least one that fails slowly–is way better than speaking up and facing the vitriol of all the other survivors.

We see this kind of problem throughout the university technology transfer community.  There is virtually no public discussion of the underpinnings of practice, exploration of new approaches (or even the suppressed old approaches), or ways an organization could improve.  Discussion is limited to pitches for more resources, better training, and gosh aren’t we all doing really well, despite criticism from mean folks (since only mean folks could criticize such a wholesome thing as technology transfer).   Sadly, the criticism is warranted, even needed, but the consensus is not able to take it up and do something about it.

Why the lack of discussion?  Well, perhaps things are settled.  Technology transfer just doesn’t get much better.  Disclosure, assessment, patenting, marketing, licensing, royalties, success stories.  Keep it that way.  That’s what some folks propose.  There’s this great work of building a whole profession out of the foundation of the Bayh-Dole Act, and that means nothing can get in the way of this great enterprise.  Even, apparently, when it has gone off-kilter toward compulsory ownership, suppression of alternatives, and a whole lot of political lobbying without public debate.   I tend to think of a certain technology transfer organization more like a pressure group than a professional support group.  It has taken positions, and now can’t be wrong, black knight at the crossing style.  It would be just silly if it weren’t causing significant harm.

More likely, though, technology transfer folks fear reprisals for speaking out.  Technology transfer operations are treated by university administrators more like football coaching than curriculum or research.  Hire a new coach, fire the assistant coaches and start over with a new program–who cares, just win, er, win a big tv contract.  We see that almost daily, with a new vice provost of something or nother showing up and on a whim changing everything up.   Within technology transfer the job of the rest is to survive these changes.   Don’t speak out of turn, don’t challenge the new system, don’t have any original ideas.  Everyone is expected to be the trooper, with career intact, until the next change at the top.  In such circumstances an organization can become quite sophisticated in how it manipulates business to create the appearance of consensus and everyone “on the same team”.  Yet, it can also create huge problems for everyone involved in innovation.

This is a real problem for university innovation, when management of innovation is so fear-inducing or discussion-ending that to have any other idea will get you ridicule, marginalized, forcibly re-trained, and/or fired.   That’s an odd kind of culture to arise around innovation work in universities.  Yet there it is.  I get email, folks leaving tech transfer, worn out with the bozonet, and/or unable to develop their work within the university.  The rationalization is that these must be the outliers, the problems, the folks who can’t get with the program.  I think these are the folk that carry the future of university innovation, and that they are relatively rare, and universities are dying as these folk are suppressed and driven out.  Slowly dying, of course, so that the parasitical load of the bozonet expects a long feast.  But you can’t be innovative if the innovative folks are walking away.

Yes, there is a problem with human nature, and that’s not going to be worked out here or any time soon.  But there’s also a problem with policy observers, who tacitly assume that innovation is about “models” and things can be thought out as “systems” and then little human things just get thrown in to execute and “make things work”.    This might work, here and there, building widgets in factories, say, if policy makers have any experience with widgets, but it’s just the wrong thing for innovation.  Innovation is a condition of variance from the status quo, with the chance to create a new status quo.  One doesn’t just go out and plan it.  One doesn’t just have ideas about it and reason from these to the big wide world.  It’s bad enough for life to imitate art.  It’s worse when the art is policy and life is forced to make a show of imitation.

This leads to a problem I’ve come to recognize.  It is multiplex.  It is not just the presence of a bozonet.  Bozonets can be rather fun.   It is not just that folks aren’t doing their jobs competently, as if more re-training would boost productivity.  A lot of folks are quite good at what they do.  It is not even that the jobs that have been defined (“technology licensing associate”) are in many cases poorly conceived jobs for participating in innovation events–even if one could get different job descriptions through HR, it may be that new job descriptions would still be institutionally bound.   It is not even that the practice of licensing university research via IP claims is poorly conceived and implemented as an institutional function carried about by administrative types.  All this can be tolerated.  Really, it’s okay.  Technology transfer run this way doesn’t have to be competent, thought out, well implemented, or adaptable.   Innovation can deal with imperfection, and in many ways thrives on it.

Rather, the deeper problem with this sort of consensus that cannot discuss and consider, that circles the wagons around political agendas and suppression of variance, is that it blocks the development of other approaches to innovation.  It is like the wicked neighbor who finds an “in” with local government to ensure that everyone else in the neighborhood can’t do anything fun or interesting without violating some ordinance.   And that in many ways is just what we have, institutional technology transfer as the wicked neighbor of innovation activities, blocking what it takes to be as bad (in favor of its own agenda) and preventing anything that might appear to be better from emerging (for fear it will take over).  Strictly Ballroom, so to speak.

There are other ways to respond to diversity, of course.  One could, if one really liked the monopoly licensing for money model, work to improve it in some way.  Restore it to non-compulsory, and thereby get rid of a lot of stuff that is poorly suited to the approach.  Move it out of the university so it can hammer university collaborators with greater confidence and keep its records and pay scales confidential.   One could also open up and allow multiple approaches to co-exist, even compete.   Choice confuses the bozonet, but  innovation thrives on it. Allowing multiple approaches would require a substantial rethinking of things like institutional ownership of inventions, but it is all very possible.

One could also, even, consider altogether different objectives, outcomes, and metrics, and de-emphasize patents and money, though this will strike some as against the “public interest”.    Going this way, one might have to deal also with whether research expenditure is a meaningful metric of “public interest”.   These are not easy things to bring up, as they are fundamental value positions for university administrators.  But these are also the positions that makes the endeavor of research-led innovation subject to collapse.  Technology transfer folks won’t likely be pinned for causing it, but it sure appears that they would rather go down with their baggage of virtues and principles than to think there might be a risk to research itself–whether supported by industry, the government, or foundations–presented by their consensus practices.

Is it that dire?  Could technology transfer in its patent-monopoly-product-royalties formulation be that important?  And that bad?    I’m saying yes to both.  For importance, technology transfer has no idea what to do with itself.   University administrators largely see technology transfer as an afterthought, with all the important reputation building work of research in winning grants and gaining recognition for publications.  If it brings in money, fine.   But from a broader perspective, technology transfer is the heart of federal research policy, which pushes north of $60b to universities each year.  Same for foundation supported research, which underwent a conversion of its own in the 1950s, moving from policy advocacy and public services to research as a means of creating desired change.   If one pulls a thread from Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier through the establishment of the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies with strong extramural research budgets, connects up the Bayh-Dole Act, and then pokes at the current policy claims connecting research with economic development and national competitiveness, one has to see that somehow, for the thread to hold at all, technology transfer is implicated in the model.  In this view, research without economic outcomes is waste.  Technology transfer marks the connection of research with economic outcomes.  How this comes about is everything.

The universities, having implemented what is now a consensus compulsory monopoly patent licensing model, make the claim that by focusing on inventions, seeking lucrative markets (“inventions with commercial potential”), and concentrating on exclusive licenses (which universities used as one of the core arguments for getting Bayh-Dole passed) the connection between research and outcomes is directional, from universities to industry, that it is most importantly mediated by patents covering inventions made in basic research, and that for such transactions to succeed, other forms of movement of technology and rights must be suppressed.

These alternatives are termed sometimes the “back door” with the implication that those working these methods are being covert and unethical, even if their activities are entirely within university policy.  The idea is, in the next revision of policy, back door activities will be stamped out.   Thus, the implication is, if I publish often so as to preclude later having created superficial patentable inventions, I’m bad because I could have arranged things to create those patentable positions for the university, and somehow that the university now does not have the opportunity to take these positions is bad for the public (meaning, er, the public really, really, really wants the university to take monopoly positions, hit up industry, and make money, er, yes, lots of money, so that, er, there can be more research from which to get monopoly positions) .

Similarly, I could choose to consult and help a company develop technology, but I could have tried to get federal funding to do similar work and then the university could have made money licensing the technology to the company, and that would be better.  In fact, the implication is, I’ve taken personal money (for consulting) rather than supporting a university position on money, and that violates all sorts of things about how I “use” my position for “private gain”.   The implication is that everything I might do is already owned by the university, and it is entitled to the money that may be made from that ownership position, and I am only entitled to that share that the university announces I should have, and it is my duty and happy privilege to accept that share.   It’s not unlike living on a collectivist farm in Stalin’s Russia.  Collectivism did not work there.   I don’t see it working in technology transfer at universities.  Why would anyone think it would work?  It appears the attraction is in having power over others who do not agree but do not have the means to resist.

The point is, technology transfer may well be the critical step in federal policy but is now saddled by a backwards, narrow, defensive, and remarkably un-innovative program of patent licensing that neither inspires diversity or development in its own practices nor can tolerate any other practices that might compete with its own sphere of operations.

Given the situation, what can be done?   How do faculty working with ideas and insight gain multiple pathways to be part of breakthrough networks–even if not of their own ideas, even if the direction is to bring innovation into or through university research rather than to be fixated only in pushing it out, and only by means of patents, and only through exclusive licenses that don’t give room for internal practice or improvements, and only for money, and only through the institution?

Aside then, from problems of the bozonet, do we start a new organization?  How about a non-organization, which would confuse the bozonet and so keep it at some distance.  How does one un-join a non-organization?  Do we hold events on campuses, dedicated to the fixing (as in “cat”, not “car”) of IP policies and the residual implications that universities own everything but what they give back when deemed worthless?  Do we challenge the consensus in the press?  In the courts?  In the academic literature?   Do we guide policy studies to show more clearly how bad it really is? That’s sort of what has been done, but academics have a tough time relying on surveys and not knowing practice well enough to know what’s b.s.

How about public debate?  That’s sort of what folks did with the Harvard Business Journal one of ten best ideas for 2010–to give inventors choice in agents and Department of Commerce to hold public discussions on how–, which got shot at by the anti-innovation technology transfer consensus, who popped off the fallacies like they were PEZ.  That’s also sort of what we have been doing with the Stanford v. Roche situation, where now it’s up to the Supreme Court.   The university administrators didn’t ask the faculty what they thought of compulsory ownership of inventions, spun up an account that companies were inducing employees to sign away rights they couldn’t possibly have (i.e., the university is supposed to own everything until any given thing is worthless), and worked up a mass of pitchforks and torches over it all.   We will see what we get to for standing up to it, citing chapter and verse, and arguing for freedom to innovate.

Meanwhile, there is work to do.  Folks are working toward new and better and stranger and discomforting things.   It’s good to be part of that world.     In that world, the bozonet is a bug in the grass.



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