Francis Bacon, Vannevar Bush, and Technology Transfer

Peter Harrison and Benoît Godin trace the history and transformation of two of the critical concepts that underlie the present formula for university research: curiosity and innovation. Remarkably, both concepts have much of their early existence as negative things, to be avoided and denounced, and both undergo a reformation, emerging as virtues. Other key concepts in matters of inquiry and innovation also appear to have had the same transformation, such as “usefulness” and “originality.” At some point, two hundred or so years ago, there was a revolution not in science, but in the moral context for learning. The history of curiosity and innovation, and that of the debate that framed their change in status, still matters today. Indeed, the present representation of “technology transfer” from research is a clear restatement of the justifications that Francis Bacon made for inquiry.

Peter Harrison provides an account of the ways in which curiosity was counted as a vice, along with pride, as something that “puffs up” a person with “worldly wisdom” and creates dangerous ideas that work against the proper operation of society. Bacon has to navigate these objections in order to make a case for curiosity, for inquiry into nature–a nature that has been emblemized and moralized as reflections of civil and religious order. Harrison cites Bacon:

In the concluding remarks of the preface Bacon asks of his readers “that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity.”

Bacon’s argument might appear silly these days.  No one appears to talk about the “true ends of knowledge” anymore, and certainly no one tries to anchor the pursuit of research in something like “charity” (caritas). But real stuff pertaining to the pursuit of knowledge was on the line at the time, and Harrison’s article gets at the issues nicely. These were the moral condition of the inquirer and the purpose of the inquiry. The notion of forbidden knowledge has largely left the social and political stage, and yet we find issues such as nuclear non-proliferation in countries such as Iran, efforts to circumvent copyright protections, and the recent delay in publication by a research team that managed to make a bird flu virus yet more dangerous as indications that the concept is alive and well, even if “forbidden knowledge” is not itself the object of discussion.

Both the moral condition of the inquirer and the purpose of the inquiry matter–and matter relative to the conditions of the status quo. If one believes that the status quo has been established by God (theocracy), or by the wisest people on earth (socialism, say), then anyone meddling with it has got to be up to no good.  If the status quo–the way things are, with all the justifications for the way things are, and the way things ought to change (if the way things are has any say about it)–is something really good, then anyone trying to study anything else is wasting time and resources, and bound to come up with ideas and claims that will prove distracting or destructive. In religious language, such people may be communing with demons, Dr. Faustus-style:

Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss…

In a social sphere they are the cranks and sourpusses. In academics, they are those working outside a consensus, as one will find in the treatment of anyone who is, say, looking for extraterrestrial communications or skeptical that a rise in CO2 is causing runaway global warming. Such studies are still the domain of “forbidden knowledge”–knowledge that has no purpose but to disrupt and distract, and worse than being useless is seen as damaging. In technology transfer, try proposing that universities shouldn’t own inventions except when an inventor voluntarily chooses to assign title–see what sort of reception you get.

Bacon worked the question of why anyone should want to know anything outside of what the status quo provides–the religious-political-social norms by which a society is constructed and an economy operates. For this, both the standing of the person and the purpose of the inquiry matter. With regard to science, early on in the formation of the Royal Society, there was concern to adopt a plain style, a reporting language that did not depend on rhetorical figures and flourish to make its case. John Wilkins’s effort to create a new “character” or set of glyphs by which to communicate matters of science was part of this effort. It can still be seen in the plain prose style of academic science writing.

The concern for the use of rhetorical style as a means of persuasion pushes back to the interpretation and promulgation of religious texts. St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine works through interpretation of sacred text, including issues pertaining to the use of rhetorical figures to express divine truths. Should a writer rely on rhetorical tricks to persuade a reader on a point, or should the writer express the point directly? Do the writers of the Bible? The same issue is perhaps even more important to public science–especially in the relationship of science with politics. In climate science, for instance, we have seen calls among scientists for “post normal” science–that is “science” portrayed as alarmist before there’s adequate supporting data and theory to get public attention and funding from governments and companies.

The problem with rhetorical devices in science and technology is that once you use them, it is difficult to untangle the grounded, reliable stuff from the utter handwaving bs. And once the status quo has adopted something rhetorical, it is difficult to undo it. The challenge for science is to communicate observations and theory in such a way that others can test the communications, and establish what holds up under independent test, and what doesn’t. To persuade while obscuring this foundation runs counter to science. But why? And that brings us back to Bacon.

What are the motives of the person who would seek to persuade us without a foundation in observation and sound theory? How should we respond if someone is playing to our fears or our delight in language and not to our sense of reason and ability to observe for ourselves? Do we not sense that we are being taken for fools, that the persuader has an agenda that is not in our best interests? That, in fact, the persuader is hiding the foundations of the case and seeking our concurrence without our reason, asking us to be dependent on the rhetoric, on the aspirations, on the horrors if we do not believe?

What is the purpose of belief without a grounding? For the status quo, such beliefs can be quite desirable. Consider advertising, where other than “showing the product” almost anything can pass for a claim, and in fact advertising still retains the idea of “puffery” in the form of claims of the form of “the best bakery in the city”, which typically lacks any objective foundation but is accepted as the kind of claim a business is allowed to make, even if there’s no credential to be offered, like getting a majority of votes in a survey or being the only bakery to pass last year’s health inspection. For the scientific and technology status quo, however, faux rhetorics are antagonistic to progress. Hyped technologies that do not pan out waste huge amounts of capital and may cost a company its existence.

Bacon argues that the investigator must be moral, committed to the good of society, and that the results of the investigation must be for the “benefit and use of life.”  These just happen to be the properties that shape university claims for the conduct of research. If we look at Vannevar Bush’s tipping point essay Science the Endless Frontier, we find Bush arguing for university leadership in inquiry, to produce new discoveries for the good of society (from the conclusion of his cover letter):

The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.

The “pioneer spirit” is curiosity–the pursuit of knowledge. Scientific progress is essential to “the benefit and use of life” in the form of security, health, jobs, standard of living, and cultural progress.

New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes.

How do we increase this scientific capital? First, we must have plenty of men and women trained in science, for upon them depends both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. Second, we must strengthen the centers of basic research which are principally the colleges, universities, and research institutes.

Here we have, essentially, Bacon’s two concerns repeated and recast. What sort of persons should do the work? Those trained in science. For what purpose do they work? To make additions to the laws of nature, so these can be applied for practical purposes. What does it mean to be trained in science?  Is that merely an induction into clevernesses? Folks in it for the money, or for self-promotion? Or does it mean persons who have made a commitment to getting to the truth of things, speaking plainly, and following observation and explanation where these lead?

The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.

The position of the university, like that of the investigator, is one devoted to being a “wellspring of knowledge and understanding” which in turn will support those working on practical problems. This is not quite the statement of the linear model that some would have it.  While there is a movement from basic to applied, there is no indication that the subject of study in basic is anything pertaining to the use made for practical problems, nor that the “practical problem” of greatest import is “applying the results of basic research.”

Bush, like Bacon, seeks out people of moral quality, and does the same for institutions. The university and research institute have a similar moral standing in American society. They are not to be mouthpieces for political agendas or profit-making ventures, nor to oppose these, but to be grounded in a kind of institutional integrity that justifies their public support. To create organizational conflicts of interest with this standing is to move away from the justifications for public support.

In addition to arguing for augmenting basic science and scientific training, Bush calls for revisions to the tax code to give benefits for basic research and to the patent law to mitigate abuses and uncertainties. He also argues for efforts to bring the results of basic research to “industries which do not now utilize scientific knowledge.” For this, one might observe, that the effort of technology transfer is not so much to find ways to license university discoveries to industries that already use scientific discoveries, but rather to work with the industries that generally do not. That would be quite a change in orientation for university tech transfer.

Bush argues for “freedom of inquiry”:

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

Such freedom results from the university setting, relieved of the institutional controls of government or industry. Of course, one may reject Bush’s contention and argue that institutional controls, such as those involving ownership of inventions (and therefore asserting institutional authority over all *other* researchers who might otherwise work with the invented stuff). To do so, however, also re-opens the argument why, then, should universities be specially designated to undertake such work, when companies and government already have robust controls to direct work, if that is the means to scientific progress.

If this is the case, then of course university administrators should bring the arguments forward, so the public, and the government, can better allocate resources to the organizations best suited to scientific progress. As it is, one of the distinctive contributions available to universities is this free spirit of inquiry. Bottle it up, even for the purpose of owning inventions and software, and one loses the distinction.

Here is Bush, making the case for free inquiry once again, with regards to progress in matters of healthcare:

Apart from teaching, however, the primary obligation of the medical schools and universities is to continue the traditional function of such institutions, namely, to provide the individual worker with an opportunity for free, untrammeled study of nature, in the directions and by the methods suggested by his interests, curiosity, and imagination. The history of medical science teaches clearly the supreme importance of affording the prepared mind complete freedom for the exercise of initiative. It is the special province of the medical schools and universities to foster medical research in this way – a duty which cannot be shifted to government agencies, industrial organizations, or to any other institutions.

Such “complete freedom for the exercise of initiative” depends on the integrity of character of both the individual investigators and the institutions that support them. Without that character, the argument fails, for it leads to an expectation of worthless effort and corrupt behaviors.

The question for “technology transfer” is whether this distinctive “duty” in support of “complete freedom for the exercise of initiative” extends to ownership of intellectual property. I think it does. There are plenty of university administrators who do not think so, however. They think that the only thing that should be free is the inquiry. The results of the inquiry are a matter of institutional patent positions for money-making or authority-demonstrating, with some honor culture thrown in for revenge on disrespectful infringers. The way I see it, basic research is not a series of investigations ending with the closure of an invention, but rather an on-going set of exchanges so that one investigator draws on the work of others without the requirement of asking permission from an institution focused on money interests and its own reputation.

Bush also recognizes the challenges of going up against the status quo, the consensus–even the consensus in science:

It is chiefly in these institutions that scientists may work in an atmosphere which is relatively free from the adverse pressure of convention, prejudice, or commercial necessity. At their best they provide the scientific worker with a strong sense of solidarity and security, as well as a substantial degree of personal intellectual freedom. All of these factors are of great importance in the development of new knowledge, since much of new knowledge is certain to arouse opposition because of its tendency to challenge current beliefs or practice.

In the federal scheme, as articulated by Vannevar Bush, the university role is to provide both a platform and a buffer for the advancement of science. It is apparent how an agent model of invention management–using research foundations and specialized invention management companies to deal with commercial interests while encouraging and facilitating publication and instruction. Bush concludes his discussion of centers of “basic research” with the core tenet of public funding:

If the colleges, universities, and research institutes are to meet the rapidly increasing demands of industry and Government for new scientific knowledge, their basic research should be strengthened by use of public funds.

Regrettably, this piece of Bush’s vision has largely not come about. Instead, we have federal funding by means of grants, with indirect cost recoveries set at about one half of what industry charges for comparable work. The result is that universities lose money on the federal research they undertake. At the University of California, in a recent year, it was about $720m lost in a $3.5b research budget, much of it federal.  That is no way to keep universities “strong and healthy.” Actually, it is shameful that the federal government is unwilling to provide to universities the same indirect cost rates that it routinely negotiates with industry.

The upshot of all this is that the fundamental arguments proposed by Bacon are repeated by Bush. The emphasis is on the condition of individuals who undertake study, and their institutions, combined with a emphasis on the effect of this study on the community. In every bit of the argument, Bush, without so much as saying it, makes a comparable case for caritas as the basis for federal funding of university research, led by the independent inquiry of faculty investigators. Bush is quite careful not to argue that the results of research are the thing to be “commercialized.” Rather, that the results of research will prove beneficial to community, opening up prospects for commercial use.

The difference is tremendous. The current linear model thinking is to identify inventions arising in research, patent them, and then find speculative financiers who favor monopoly positions as a basis to make products for sale. Bush’s reasoning runs a different direction. He does not view universities as proto-factories, whose culture properly truncated to commercial norms will become engines to hold hostage scientific understanding until payment is made. Bush considers scientific research to be a platform from which commercial interests, among others, may draw. It is the availability of new knowledge, not patents offering monopoly positions, that lays in the argument for the usefulness of university research. It is not that such research can give rise to a “make you pay” position, but rather that in recognizing the benefits of the connections with such research, the public supports the institutions that make it possible. In this way, one can argue for usefulness of basic research and not transform that research into covertly commercial research done ahead of, and to gain an advantage over industry.

The rhetoric of university technology transfer operations arises from these same issues. The arguments of Bacon, refracted through Bush, enhanced by Bayh-Dole, and liberated and clarified by Stanford v Roche come to shape the fundamental themes.

Faculty dedicated to the truth working in institutions with integrity pursue independent scholarship, the results of which are useful to society, thus supported by public resources. This is basic Bacon & Bush. One can see where “technology transfer” ends up.  It is part of the argument that the federal support to faculty and universities results in findings that are of use to society, and in particular to industry. Again, there is nothing that says the use has to be in the form of products based on patents held by universities, nor is there anything that says there should be a tug o’ war between administrators and faculty over who should have the primary benefit from patent licensing or discoveries or sponsored research. Even in Bayh-Dole, the emphasis throughout is on practical application, not necessarily “commercialization..” In the statement of objectives, universities are called out to collaborate with industry, and industry is called out to “commercialize.”

I have sometimes called technology transfer part of the conscience of a research university. Folks don’t seem to care for that any more than talk about caritas.  But in a sense, that is the role technology transfer plays. There is no question that when there is a discovery in university research, it should be taught. That is, the adjunct of research is instruction–the communication of new knowledge to society. See what society does with it, but if one follows Bacon, the role of faculty, and the university, is to make an effort to see that what society does advances our well being. Folks get distracted, however, by inventions, think about patents, and their minds turn toward money, because there is a broad practice in which money is the goal of patenting. For universities, however, patent money is not something to be out and got, but rather something that is shared in, by others making the decision–inventors, agents, companies.

When the university decides to go get the money directly, by demanding ownership, pushing faculty inventors to the sidelines, and then seeking out commercialization opportunities, no matter how you cut it, the university has given up its distinctive position in Bush’s universe for public funding and has fallen out of the center of Bacon’s argument for research. The purpose of federal funding of research is not so that universities can try to make money by shaking down industry or cozying up to monopolist speculators, even ones calling themselves “venture capitalists.” The purpose of research itself is to be useful, but not first and foremost to university administrators. The effect of university compulsory commercialization approaches is to off-center the university from public funding. That road leads to the movement of public research funding away from universities, and a withdrawal of state funds from public universities.

University IP policy is one of the places where this straying from public support–financial and imaginative–is formalized. Without ownership demands for IP and “commercialization” centers, the university plays the role of steward, an intermediary available to provide support. With demands, and overt efforts to make money, a university is essentially a commercial operation, and is no longer a collaborator with the community.

University administrators ignore moral reasoning at their peril. Public funding of research is not an entitlement regardless of what administrators do. Public funding is not an unqualified public good.  One cannot claim the benefit of the arguments from Bacon and Bush while doing something remarkably opposed to those arguments. It’s one or the other–give up Bacon and Bush–or get back on track, staying in the framework that Bacon and Bush, among others, have carved out to justify useful curiosity undertaking by those committed to the public good.

There is still room for IP, for “technology transfer,” even for licenses and royalties. But it must be rooted in the moral-social-political space created for university work. No shortcuts. No convenient administrative efficiencies. No being in it for the sake of the institution ahead of everything else. Subtle? Is it so difficult that there is a difference between hospitality and imprisonment?  Between being in it for others or for oneself? Between results that have an impact and results that become a paying product? Between receiving royalties and demanding them? There has been enough conflation and rationalization that the idea that the public is best served when universities serve themselves seems almost natural. Employers get the benefit of the employees’ work.  Faculty are just employees. University administrators should control their work, and profit from their work. But it makes no sense in historical context.  It makes no sense in the moral context of public funding.

If the foundation of university research and technology transfer indeed is Bacon’s caritas, then folks really should reconsider their demand for ownership in university IP policies.





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