More Fakographic Comment

APLU and AAU published an infographic about university research and technology transfer. Technology transfer, the infographic claims, “transforms society” and the infographic will show us how. The “driver” of this transformation, we are told, is institutional licensing of patents based on inventions made in university research. That’s a nice idea, were it true (or demonstrable). University research, so the impression is framed, is a predictable administrative process that takes research money from the government and uses patents to create countless new commercial products.

Here’s the gist of the infographic:

Federal law mandates university patenting of federally supported inventions.
University patenting of federally supported inventions is good for society.
So, don’t mess with Bayh-Dole.
Don’t examine our effectiveness.
Shut up and be grateful.

Perhaps, though, the real concern at APLU and AAU is federal funding for university research. Bayh-Dole is just another version of the claim that federal funding of university research leads to societal benefits and therefore there should be lots of federal funding for university research. And no doubt there’s something to that claim. But that’s not all that APLU and AAU are doing. They are also claiming that institutional patent licensing is central to the move from research to benefits.

The pity is, there are some really great stories out there about how people with insight have taken the initiative to make something, build something, teach something. Some of these folks, like John von Neuman and Jonas Salk, dedicated their inventions (digital computer, polio vaccine) to the public. Others, like David Atlas and Samuel Hurst (doppler radar, resistive touch sensors), worked at both federal laboratories and universities. And still others, like Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer (gene splicing), relied on university patents to regulate dissemination of research tools. These are each compelling stories, and involve attitudes toward patents and the involvement of university administrators in various ways. But none of these stories support the infographic’s claimed five-step process of patent licensing to transform society. And, strangely, none of these stories involves Bayh-Dole–these are stories from the golden era of university-hosted research, before Bayh-Dole and the administrative lock-down of inventions and discoveries.

So APLU and AAU make up a story to tell–one in which university patent officers are central (steps 3 and 4 of 5) to the transformation of society. It’s not a real story. Not that university patent officers aren’t real–of course they are, and many are dedicated professionals with curiously useful skill sets. There are good things to be accomplished. The APLU and AAU story is an assertion about how to think about the present without actual regard for the present. Factually, it’s not there.

Here are some things that APLU and AAU might write that would be closer to being true:

Administrators at our member institutions believe that university research is important to the future interests of society. [reports administrative beliefs for whatever they are]

We are really proud of the efforts our member institutions have made to manage inventions and discoveries. [self-congratulation, always allowable]

We oppose cuts to federal extramural research programs because our member institutions rely on that funding. [the right to express institutional self-interest]

If APLU and AAU put out an infographic that made these claims, it would be perfectly fine as an entry into a public discussion over what we might do with federally funded research. Instead, they publish an infographic that claims as established facts what are only assertions and wishy-fors. It’s a fakographic that sounds good, but isn’t.


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