Competing Primitive Narratives of Technology Transfer

I have noticed recently how merely having a reasonable account for something doesn’t mean that one has got the one and only reasonable account. Todorov, that critical theorist that folks in tech transfer have never heard of, says that there’s no “primitive narrative” in history. By this, he means that there is no single narrative that when all facts are assembles arises as the necessary single “true” account of an event. There is no “true history” that becomes apparent when “all the facts” are assembled. A primitive narrative is a kind of fiction. In a substantive way, it is a metonymic device.

A metonym is a figure of thought in which a part stands for a whole, or a property or attribute for a thing. The “White House” is an attribute of the Presidency, but when the “White House announces a new program” we understand this to mean that someone from the President’s office made the announcement. A part, often, can also be an instance standing for a set of things. Thus, when a star baseball player visits a school, he stands for the set of successes, for baseball, and for the team he plays for. Metonyms are everyday figures, more common than metaphors–but with a name hardly anyone knows.

A primitive narrative is an instance of a set of all such narratives.  Itself, a primitive narrative can appear entirely reasonable, fit the “facts” and “artifacts” that are assembled in association with it, and one would think that this is clearly the final word on the matter. But if a primitive narrative is just a metonym standing in for a whole class of such narratives, then we need to move from the first instance to the rest to come to understand what is in that class. In short, we must establish the context, because that’s what actually matters, not any particular instance.

Now here’s the thing. We can construct narratives that tell a story. That’s what a novel does, for instance, or a narrative about how an innovation has come about–warfarin, for instance. These are fictions in their way. That’s not bad–it’s not that they are “untrue”–but that they are artiface, something we have created. As a created thing, they are what they are–substantive things in the world–narratives that are recognizable and stable. But the thing they refer to is a class of things, not a “single real thing in the world that is exactly what they are” (unless a narrative refers only to itself–recursion!).

The stories we tell about the future also show up as primitive narratives–plans, scenarios, even scientific theory. The “process” of technology transfer. When one reads that a university TLO receives disclosures of inventions, reviews them for patentability and commercial potential, files patent applications on the best, seeks commercialization partners, negotiates licenses, and shares royalties with inventors, that sounds like a pretty logical, well thought out way to do things. But it’s a primitive narrative. Things don’t work that way in practice, generally. Get it abstract enough, of course, and it is merely a label.  Any more specific than what I have just written, and it begins to break up. Often the disclosure document comes after the start of review, and the review for commercial potential may happen before patent issues are dealt with, and for that matter, a company may already have an interest, so there’s no need to seek commercialization partners. And, of course, inventors might not disclose to the university TLO at all, publish their work for all, and run with something other than an offer of a patent license, made by the institution.

All these are possibilities, members of the set. Build up enough experience seeing the variations, one begins to understand practice in terms of the set and its range rather than any particular idealization of it. A big problem, however, is that folks who write policy often have no experience at all with the set.  They see a primitive narrative as a plan, and write policy to make sure that the plan is followed. The more people that follow the plan, the more “efficiency” is introduced into the system. People that don’t follow the plan are “rogue” or “uninformed” or “non-participatory” and more policy is written to “educate” them, or to put them “on notice” of “possible actions” to be taken against them for their non-compliant behavior. In a policy world, life must imitate art, and the art is the primitive narrative of policy. One might see, in such a world, the roots of an authoritarianism, which is about the last thing one needs when it comes to the early moments of innovative work. Later, when an innovation is established, then an institution or CEO or dictator can be helpful in demanding everyone use it, but early on, it’s not the best thing to demand that all innovators follow a standard process–a primitive narrative–by which their work will be turned into patent rights to be licensed to a company for productization.

This is a general problem with all statements about a “new model” for “economic development” or for “technology transfer.” That new model is a primitive narrative. It’s a fiction. It stands in for a class of things, or maybe for multiple possible classes (even unintentionally). The challenge is in what practice might arise in the “new model” and whether practice exists to “make the model look good” or to “do what is available to be done.” In this way, one might notice that a weak “model” might be more favorable to innovation than a “strong” one that is heavily enforced. It might be better to say–if we get an invention disclosure, and agree to handle it, then we will use our judgment to decide what to do–than to lay out an ideal process that gives a chronology and dares anyone to stray from it.

In the discussion about free agency in university technology transfer, much of the antagonism toward any form of choice appears to come from folks who are deeply committed to a primitive narrative about institutional involvement in all aspects of such a transfer. In this primitive narrative, an invention may be born free, but the first order of business is to find it and capture it for institutional purposes. Better, of course, is the invention born into captivity so that it never knows what freedom feels like–rather like Ed Harris’s Cristof feelings for Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank. The idea is that in any pathway to innovation a university-hosted invention’s first stop is to become institutionalized. There is a set of arguments for doing so, and without any context around them, these arguments are perfectly rational–about providing resources, making things orderly, bringing in diligent professionals, and representing all stakeholders in some equitable fashion. But it is still a primitive narrative, a fiction.

If one mistakes an instance for the whole set, then we have big trouble, because then the goal of policy is to make life imitate art:  make innovation happen the way administrators have said it should happen. Folks are gratified when any string of events even comes close, which might be once a decade. See–the primitive narrative really does work!

The arguments about free agency, then, are not so much an argument against any given primitive narrative, but against holding so tightly to any one. Adding multiple opportunities for the next step in the development of a research invention creates way more possibilities–something administrators tend to dislike–possibilities that open up pathways for adoption that are not generally available through a single institutional office, no matter how resourced and talented and diligent it might believe it is.

Whatever we think, the world is generally richer, deeper, more unexpectable than any policy-writing bureaucrat’s imagination of it. This is true, especially, for the bureaucrat writing IP policies for university administrators. The best of such policies are so defective that they are not enforceable; the worst, so insistent that they act as threats rather than authorize services. In any case, the point of discussion really is whether primitive narratives about innovation exist to point to classes of activity, or to give authoritarians a change to force behavior to make them look good. Does participation in a tech transfer program happen because faculty inventors want the program to “succeed” or because the inventors choose the program over others–and then want it to succeed at least with regard to their invention? Of course, narratives about motives also are primitive narratives, and what we might be confident in is the idea that there is a swirl of such motives.

The present “system” of American university technology transfer has become a monoculture practice built on an often repeated primitive narrative about institutional roles, the purpose of the patent, and how licenses create wealth. Folks don’t want to give that up. They see it, perhaps, as a fight for survival of all they believe in, what they have worked to achieve, their political power, their careers. They would rather invoke authoritarian rule to preserve it, than to relax the constraints and work with a share of the action rather than all of it. They want the primitive narrative to be true, to make their claims about it true. They imagine that when the primitive narrative indeed becomes true, then their dreams will be met, university innovation will flow out to the world through lucrative licenses, and the financial difficulties of the university will be resolved, and communities will prosper, the land will bring forth jobs and prosperity after their kinds, and things will be very, very good. As real, and as inspiring, as this narrative is–as narrative–it doesn’t exist in the world of practice. The narratie is a member of a class of such narratives, a class that bundles up our hopes and dreams within a plan, and by sticking to the plan it will all come true. It’s just that we don’t see such things happening that way. Instead, we get a fundamental idealism that devolves into holding onto power and position, and becomes a chronic enterprise.

What does this mean for university innovation management? It means that we need to consider the class of possibilities for how innovation comes about, how research is involved in such comings about, and what roles an institution might play in all this.  Reducing it all to a primitive narrative provides a vision of better times, and gives the detached bureaucrat the impression that he or she knows something (because he or she can recite the core of the narrative), but this reduction does very little for innovation itself.

Instead, we need to look at the shape of these narratives, and ask people in practice for accounts of their experience, looking for what is atypical rather than what is common. The narratives we seek are not those that are harvested from what people say most often, but from the range of what people say rarely and distinctly. And with those, we also seek the narratives we can imagine, but cannot find someone else to say for us.

All this appears, I know, to be a bother of complications and uncertainties, and indeed it is. This bother is the heart of establishing an innovation-favorable environment, one that can find its own way, with access to a variety of resources to do so, not dependent on institutional controls. That’s what freedom to innovate is about–not so much an approach, but establishing a shape for a set of approaches, providing institutions with roles, but by choice not decree.

In this, one might then find two primitive narratives, one in which the only agent is the host institution, and another in which any number of agents participate. Both have reasons. How might one decide between these two narrative claims and choose a course of a shape for policy, a course of action? Perhaps we have to do the experiment again (given that we have already done so once, and the agent model was clearly superior, but has given way in policy debates over the past 30 years to the institutional agent model).

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