On the Central Control of Research Innovation

Global University Venturing has published an essay that explores yet another aspect of the present assignment situation, exploring the effect of institutional claims on the dynamics of innovation.  In the essay I try to put in the context the arguments for central control that allow folks to justify public universities’  introduction of present assignments as a condition of employment.

For an example of how this new policy at Washington is affecting a lab, take a look at this post from the now not-so-Open 3d Printing site.  The problem is, if you the outsider teach UW folks how to do something, and if the UW folks have signed the outside work approval form, then UW insists that they own your “know how” automatically, by present assignment.  Of course, if the UW folks don’t sign, then they are apparently committing an ethics violation by not being complicit in baiting you to turn your ideas over, at least jointly, to the University for possible “commercialization”.

Is the approval form enforceable?  Dunno.  But UW can’t say it’s “just in case”.  It either does what it claims to do or it doesn’t.  And what it claims to do is get an automatic assignment to everything it wants, and if one signs, they also are agreeing to let the University change the policy when it wants.  How is that a contract?  How can one agree to agree?  Dunno.  Must be a magickal process, something made up by administrators because autocracy just–well, you know how it is for some administrators–autocracy just sounds so good.

Clearly, the present assignment approach is a threat by technology transfer offices to faculty and students, to industry, and to the broader community that it is not to be messed with.  All ideas, inventions, discoveries, copyrights are owned by the university outright, and that’s a good thing.  For public universities, this means:  state control of scholarship, for work down outside of the workplace, for inventions (another form of scholarship), and for anything else the commercialization folks can think of.

Unfortunately, the folks that got it wrong about Bayh-Dole and about Stanford v Roche, have also got it wrong about what to do after Stanford v Roche.  Maybe they have it wrong about innovation, too.  All those nifty diagrams about the “innovation process”–are they just a crock?  They sure are pretty, though!  Do folks enjoy being this way?  Is it a kind of lulz of the university licensing officer to disrupt the personal initiative of folks in the field?  Again, dunno.

Here’s the thing.  How innovation happens is a big mystery for research, just as it is a big mystery what you will come home with when out exploring.  I’m reading Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.  For the Brits at the time, southwestern Tibet is an unknown place, just to get to.  No maps.  They don’t even know how to get to the base of Everest, let along what it will take to climb it.  The Tibetans talk about journey times in terms of cups of tea to the next town or pass.  Innovation is like that.  Order may come from it, in terms of maps and routes, but if you impose order on the exploration itself and insist you own everything the explorers do, you mess with the way things are, and the way things will work out, and what gets explored and reported.  Like the Brit generals in the Great War, never visiting the front, sending tens of thousands of young men to their deaths in single days by telling themselves that the Germans will flee in terror seeing brave men marching–not running–resolutely toward them.  No, the Germans mowed them down with machine gun fire.   In their journals they recorded their horror at the carnage.  They didn’t want to do it.  Just as the dutiful Brit soldiers didn’t.  There’s central control for you.  It sure seemed like a jolly good plan on paper, but for the cluelessness about the world, technology, and events.

Let’s hope that those making the decisions in this skirmish over present assignments and faculty innovation decide to visit the front lines, get up to speed on what’s happening, and stop listening to advisors who have been wrong so many times that they simply don’t have any credibility left.  There is talent there, in the tech transfer community, but if one gets on the wrong side of history–and here that means hiding wrong-headedness by making more wrong-headedness rather than admitting it, making changes, and moving on–then the entire research enterprise is compromised at just the critical point where it could be doing so much good.


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