Thinking about projects, small and big–3

We have used a scenario to illustrate the relationship between small projects and big projects in a university research environment. In a sense, this relationship between projects is one of the key drivers of research enterprise. It’s not just that work becomes persistent with a purpose–a project–but that projects, too, may form relationships, often informal. And informality is often a very good thing–it is easy to be informal, except when surrounded by administrators devoted to formality, and then informality appears to be messiness, or lack of proper documentation, or indifference to process, or failure to respect policy, or non-compliance, or insubordination, or corruption. Funny how policy may create crime against authorities. We might wonder just where it is in innovation that a necessary ingredient is administrative authority.

Why is it that the informal establishment of a project, or the informal relationships among projects, are somehow not good enough and must have, in addition, administrative formality? It may well be that for some projects, administrative formality is just the thing, just as with selling activity–at some point, for some activities, forming a company is an important next step. Some things can be achieved with formal structure that cannot be achieved informally. But in contrast, if one wants crazy messing around to discover what’s worth being persistent about, trying to organize everything runs against volatility, runs against an environment in which crazy messing around is an important precursor to finding things worth persisting in doing, studying, collecting. We find the worth of new things in the doing of them, not in pre-stated reasoning about what must be important.

If a committee of reviewers already know what’s important, then we aren’t on the frontiers of science anymore, even if that’s what the billboard above the committee proclaims. Crazy messing around with loopy scientific ideas, with odd unexplained details–atmospheric sprites, say–where’s the university policy that encourages crazy messing around? Not hardly. Yet the early idea about university research–one confirmed by Vannevar Bush with his “free play of free intellects” idea–is that the university provides an institutional environment in which people can still mess around with loopy ideas, some of which become worthy of persistence, and some of those become the subject of institutional interest–whether industry or government or the university administration itself.

The effect of the University of California and MIT creating their own institutional offices to license patents for profits (for research funding!) has been to make university administrations nationwide assert an institutional interest in all inventive work–that all inventive work must be formalized immediately, must be removed from the inventors’ control, from the informal social organization of projects, must be monetized–and all this must be seen as virtuous. Thus, so much effort is devoted to self-congratulatory virtue-pounding (“success stories,” “economic development,” “but for us inventions would collect dust,” and the like). It’s worth observing that no one unrelated to the money flow in the university research enterprise sings the praises of institutional formalization of inventive work. Not the public, certainly. There is no virtue in it. There is no public adoration of the activity. It’s like a slaughterhouse–the gore and stench is accepted because there is an expectation of Sunday bacon. But what if a slaughterhouse doesn’t produce bacon, but claims it does, and gets a subsidy just to slaughter? That’s pretty much what university technology transfer becomes under a comprehensive, compulsory, monopoly-based invention policy regime.

We come back around, then, to the idea that doesn’t easily snap to grid, that sometimes–perhaps rarely, even–formalizing a project might be a valuable next step in the development of something persistent that has an interesting purpose. The policy that supports such a selection process for formalization cannot possibly be “uniform” in treating all inventive activity “the same.” The policy must be one that enables selective judgment regarding what activities would benefit from formalization, and rallying resources responsive to their needs. Selective judgment, not uniformity with exceptions.

A project may be formalized in any number of ways. It might be folded into a sponsored project. It might spin out as a new company. It might become organized research, with a name–Center or Institute. It might get extra institutional support via a memorandum of understanding. It might organize to better attract donors. Or it might be formalized in anticipation of managing assets that would provide it with self-sustaining income. University patent administrators have created their own form of formalization by taking ownership of inventions and purposing those inventions for commercialization, typically via monopoly agreements called “exclusive license” but generally operating as assignments. That is, these administrative invention projects compete for control of inventions with the informal and formal activities that otherwise produce the inventions in the first place.

Rather than wait for an indicated next step to be ready, university administrators find peak pleasure in invention policies that ask them to take control of inventive work the moment it exists (that’s the purported effect of present assignments) and place that inventive work into a formal administrative project to commercialize it. Mostly what happens is that the inventive work is documented, intellectual property positions established, coarse marketing text created, entries made in data bases, and then nothing. The pig gets slaughtered on the pretext that it must to market, but there’s no concern whether it was the big toe or the little one that went wheewheewheewhee all the way home.

The critical insight in university formalization of projects is knowing when an activity might benefit from formalization into a project, when that formalization should involve the host institution, and how that formalization advances the life of the project itself–for how long should such a project persist? To make a movie, one might create a production company that will have maybe three years of existence. Not built to last forever. Similarly with formalized projects in a university: they aren’t built just to have ever more projects, to count them and compare our projects with Stanford’s projects, heh-heh. Projects get formalized because the formalism serves a purpose in the life of the activity. In particular, formalism manages IP and NIPIA assets, provides a mechanism of relationship among institutions, deals with the flow of money, and alters the nature of acknowledgement and attribution–now there’s a project with a name and social identity that one can align with. It’s the difference between playing a pick up baseball game–teams with no names–and playing for the Everett AquaSox, where there are uniforms and a frog mascot.

Changes in university policies and practices over the past three decades with respect to technology transfer have created a new form of big project in universities–even without the faculty investigators necessarily realizing it. But these big projects are every bit as real as any project proposed by faculty investigators in their grant proposals. When administrators insist that each inventive thing must be institutionalized and commercialized, they necessarily co-join that institutional project to whatever work preceded it. Any project in the university necessarily then includes an additional administrative project to commercialize “results”–every small project becomes a big project; every big project becomes a bigger project. Every project supports these new administrative after-projects. Every sponsor of a project supports, at least in part, the inevitable administrative after project. But for the sponsor’s support of a project, there would be no invention to formalize; no inevitable administrative after-project to commercialize. Sponsors of small projects support in part the big projects to which the small projects are co-joined.

Where the big projects proposed by faculty investigators might involve work leading to “a cure for cancer” or to “dramatically improve spam filtering,” the new big projects created by university administrators involve the “commercialization” of research outcomes in the form of new products or at least new companies with an initial commitment to developing new products (or to getting acquired while making a show of doing so).

University formal documents pertaining to research, inventions, commercialization, revenue generation, and public benefit openly declare that small projects are intended by the university, whenever possible, to be big projects–namely, ones that result in commercialization. These big projects, unlike lofty scientific or social goals expressed in grant proposals to justify small projects, are baked into formal university policies–invention policies, commercialization offices, and licensing practices.

Even the existence of a standardized “royalty-sharing” schedule belies the university’s commitment to making money from the licensing of inventions, that money-making should be an incentive for inventors to “participate” in the technology transfer program (even as changes in university policy make that participation compulsory). As a result of these policies that insist on a university mission of economic development, and of patent licensing for commercialization as a means to that end, the administrative big project of commercialization always exists, waiting for any inventive activity, whether in a small project or merely random, to make itself known.

It does not have to be this way, of course. But university administrators have chosen to make it this way. In their determination to claim all inventions made by university personnel (whether the inventions are patentable or not; whether the personnel are employed or not), and linking university ownership of inventions to commercialization (otherwise called exclusive patent licensing, economic development, technology transfer), university administrators have systematically constructed big projects from small projects as a matter of policy. Whatever the potentially non-committal stance of any given faculty investigator towards contributing to a larger institutional project, university administrators cannot disclaim their own published commitment to commercialization–the commercialization project exists because university administrators have insisted, formally, that it must exist.

A university administrator would have to disclaim the necessary big project–make a formal exception to policy–to disable the expectation that an invention made in the university was not destined for the policy-mandated effort to commercialize. And following through on that disclaimer, the invention would have to be managed to make clear that commercialization (at least through the mechanism of exclusive licensing) was not an intended outcome of the university. Patent claims could not be drafted to attempt to exclude others from creating commercial products based on a university-owned invention, or if such claims were drafted, the university would have to announce that these claims would not be enforced other than to protect the public from false claims or faulty manufacture. But this sort of thing just doesn’t happen, as things stand now.

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