The Box of Technology Transfer

In The Marketplace of Ideas:  Reform and Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand works his way through the angst that is the lot of the English professor mired in a world of humanities departments who have lost their way but had a good time theorizing about why this is a good thing.  While Menand constructs a plausible history for how this has come about, and why it really is a good thing to wring one’s hands about one’s discipline (“Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge”, 92), as his text moves toward its conclusion, he pauses to wonder if such a path might not be less satisfying than it once appeared, even with happy theories to explain why “eclecticism seems to be the fate of the academic humanities”):

But is it possible that we envy a little those contributors to the culture who have to do battle with the forces of the market and with heteronomy–with the reality checks of life outside the university?”  I think we might be.  I think we want to contribute to the culture and the society that is being created and lived all around us, and we are a little sick of the institutional armature we once may have desired to secure us.

As Menand works through this idea, he longs for a “real fight” with “the forces that make and remake the world most human beings live in.”  Setting aside the image of literature professors prowling the streets looking to mix it up with ordinary humans, one can ask just what it is that the academic humanities might offer were they to become re-engaged in something other than internal squabbles.  Menand attempts to shape it out more clearly, or at least more melodramatically:

We want to bring the dissonance and struggles of competing interests, the risks of innovation and experimentation, into our box, and we are scandalized that the box refuses to accommodate them. (125)

The box, for Menand, is the academic disciplinary boundary that separates faculty work from, I would guess, the real world most human beings live in.  In the box, one may theorize without fear of accountability–all one need do is persuade or influence one’s colleagues to accept one’s theories, creating space for them in publications, conferences, and then in curriculum and narratives of the history of the academic humanities.   Menand finds such a thing challenged by “interdisciplinarity”–moving outside the boundaries of the box.   The box, Menand points out, “was designed with an entirely different intellectual game in mind.  It was designed to protect professors and their valuable socializing function from the beasts of political and commercial interests.”

Here, at the close of the third essay (of four), Menand gets down to it:

But those beasts are out there.  They are what make the fight real.

The “fight” here is nothing other than the engagement of the mind with the needs and practices of the day, of people living their lives, pursuing their interests, serving their needs and the needs of others.  What other “fight” is there?  And yet, what an odd way for an English professor to depict such engagement, as a “fight.”  For what purpose?  Against what foes?  Does the scientist fight with nature?  Does the businessman fight with customer service?  Does the inventor fight with the future?  I’m not sure at all that “fight” is the word we need here, though it does evoke mildly poetic images of the executive wrestling with the thought that shafting a few customers could save some money and help the bottom line, but what if one of those customers sues and there’s bad press, well that would cost even more, but perhaps that come out of Laziman’s budget and he deserves to take the hit, but perhaps Laziman is in too well with the CEO and that might come back to haunt, so maybe we should go ahead and spend something on upgrading our customer service.  That sort of psychomachia, perhaps.  But no.  That’s not really it.

Menand ends with another clue:  “The institution is not inherently a friend to innovation and transgression and creativity.  But it is not inherently an enemy, either.”

Harrison White in Identity and Control (2nd ed) describes network disciplines.  A social discipline “offers rules of the games that yield coordination in tasks in an otherwise messy world” (63).  “Disciplines order ties between identities, enabling joint accomplishment of tasks.”  White goes on to describe three such disciplines, one focused on membership, another on sharing out scarce resources, and a third in producing outputs from various inputs.

Menand’s Box is something of a network discipline–a social structure that permits professors to focus on advancing their professorial careers, a collection of social rules elevated to policy and convention.  Perhaps what Menand intends is a description of humanities faculty needing to participate in a broader set of disciplines–ones that are not provided readily by a university as a host institution.  The world of commerce, say, or of innovation and experimentation, beckons in part because, simply, it is not the Box.  White argues that much of what we learn of ourselves as persons comes from the awareness of our identities switching as we move among netdoms or different socially bounded situations.  It may be, the humanities professor is envious of the experience in such identity switching, and while the professor, on going home after a day of struggle against her colleagues, does indeed switch identities and become a somewhat different identity, professionally, the mantle worn is much the same, day after day.

One might say, the institution of the university does not provide much help in changing the mantle.  One might even say, the institution, as it is dominated by administrators and a majority of humanities faculty perhaps quite at home with the mantle of the day, has no particular interest in providing an environment for professional identity shifting, for dealing with beasts of commerce or politics.  Not only this, but the American university that is developing, led by largely by administrators who in practice care more for the dollar value of research than the actual outcomes, and as for outcomes more for their dollar value than their social or imaginative value, this new American university aims to establish policies that would make the humanities more efficient, professionally speaking, rather than more open to struggles with beasties that might engage faculty in “real fights” in the “real world”.

It may be that the university as an institution is not, as an institution, necessarily adverse to creativity and innovation.  But as it enacts policies that confirm and solidify various Menand Boxes, it also shapes the network disciplines of the university toward factory efficiencies.  In the case of the classroom, this is reflected in the move to “on-line learning”.  As one administrator argued, on-line learning isn’t any less effective than the classroom and can be much cheaper to implement–thereby generating more income for the university.  The emphasis was on building a software-based course delivery system that wasn’t any worse than the “typical” classroom.  Fix the classroom at some general state of quality, and mirror that in code for less cost.  Progress through efficiency.   There is a logic to it, even the cost of the logic is locking in a mediocre experience that one hopes to make fresh, clean, and permanent in a software platform.

In the case of innovation, we turn to “technology transfer”.  The same palette of ideas is at work.  Innovation is depicted with a great uncritical hope as a sequence of invention, patent, license, and product development, resulting in windfall royalties to be shared in some policy-equitable way, a mild form of ethical exercise after a hot bout of rainbow chasing. The business of administration is to firm up such a sequence into an orderly process, carried out by technicians who need only execute on the plan.  For that, the simple, obvious requirements are 1) to gain control of all IP that might have value; 2) authorize the technicians to operate without interference from authors and inventors, who are presumed not to know much at all about the complexities of securing and licensing IP; 3) executing license after royalty-bearing license, and managing the income that is expected to come rolling in.   In the strange logic of administration, most American research universities have managed to get 1) and 2) down–take all IP and exclude faculty and students from a material role in IP decisions.

What they cannot understand, then, is why 3) does not follow.  Why do companies not simply take the licenses as offered?  And it is clear companies are not taking those licenses, though universities won’t release their information about their licensing practices.  Instead, efforts have shifted to starting companies out of universities, on the premise that then the license is easy–the license can be done as a handy form of self-dealing–leaving only the private sector to step in and finance the company to become successful.  If the private sector doesn’t step up, then, why, it’s the private sector’s fault, no?

What is also becoming clear is that this bit of effort isn’t working either.  At the University of Utah, one of the most visible universities to make this move, of the hundred or so startups created in the past five years or so, only a handful have received any significant private investment.  A few have government SBIR grants, and most are paper companies, moribund, without employees or operations or products.  The next logical step, in this processification of innovation, then, is to come up with university money (or state economic development money) to make up for the absence of private investment.  If private investors don’t want to become rich, why then the state and the university will just have to go ahead and get rich without them.

It is a fascinating thing, watching as universities pour money into startup formation, and then into seed fund formation to give their companies the appearance of life.  At the University of Washington, the technology transfer office has spent $50m in the past four years to become the “Center for Commercialization” dedicated to starting companies for the purpose of achieving the fastest possible cash return on investment.  Bold initiative?  Or is it just another outlay of $30m or so extra that could have been spent on, say, instructing students.  I expect there are folks who are willing to believe that it might take $50m or even $100m over four years to get companies started that make a lot of money, create jobs, and transform our energy and healthcare needs, among other things.  The University of Washington now operates its own for-profit venture fund, saying it will raise $20m but planning internally for $50m, and apparently getting less than $10m of private  money, to put into its own startup companies.  At least, then, it will be able to recover its patenting expenses from its startups, using money from its venture fund to launder its internal expenses.  But the problem also may just be the cost of processification, trying to work out why that step 3) simply isn’t happening as predicted, despite administrators’ efforts to control the process.

What is behind this problem of “commercialization”?  Is it that private investors are too busy pursuing other areas of investment?  Is it that university inventions, especially, are “early stage” and therefore too risky for the anticipated return?  Is the label “early stage” code for “stupid from the get-go”?  Is it that university administrators managing patent rights are singularly unappetizing as business partners, given the overhead of negotiating and contracting?  Is it that society as a whole simply lacks the “innovation capacity” to recognize just how much stupendous potential exists with each and every bit of university IP claimed by administrators for commercial exploitation?  That is, the society must be stupid, not the administrators spending the millions on “early stage” stuff with huge “potential” now packaged as “startup companies”.

It is difficult to get at the motivation, but the basic idea that is repeated is that university inventions are gems that languish for lack of a) institutional interest; b) institutional control of patents; c) institutional expertise in licensing; and d) institutional investments in companies that take patent licenses.  If these things are in place and fully funded, then economic prosperity is just around the corner.  You can buy innovation-in-a-process, controlled by and for the benefit of bureaucrats.  It’s just a matter of lots and lots of money, relief from oversight, reporting, and accountability, and please, no critics because we can turn this “into a monster if we all pull together as a team.”

Of course, it is also true that if institutional funding for startups is sufficiently robust, those startups can operate for extended time without actually producing profitable goods and services.  That is, the institution can create the appearance of a cluster of technology startups without having produced anything, really, at all.  Cut the subsidies and the companies fall away to nothing, or worse, it becomes apparent that these “companies” have been a net drag on the regional economy, by existing at all, having diverted resources away from other enterprise.   Of course, one has to believe there actually are other enterprises attempting to be innovative for there to be any regret.  It’s the rare administrator these days who cares or regrets.

This effort to institutionalize innovation is itself another Menand Box, shaped by administrators with the aim of making efficient and orderly the messiness of the world, making the beast of commerce conform to the will of administrative process.   One might wonder whether there would be some envy experienced by faculty trapped in such a Box of Technology Transfer, wishing they could fight a real fight, out in the world of innovation and experimentation, rather than submit dutifully to a process that has been established to ensure that everyone is “protected” from such a world.

One might wonder, then, what things ought to change in the American university, if the institution is not necessarily adverse to creativity, so that creativity might flourish.  Clearly, one suggestion would be to relax 1) and 2)–that is, stop this nonsense of taking all IP and restore the role of creative individuals–faculty, staff, students, and volunteers–to lead out as they choose on new initiatives.  If 1) and 2) are relaxed to their pre-Bayh-Dole condition (or more accurately, to their pre-secret faux Bayh-Dole condition), then it is entirely possible that 3) might begin to show an uptick of activity.  It may be that the greatest barrier to company adoption of new university technology is the Box of Technology Transfer, which is actively being created even as you read this, across America, at some great expense, and working against, rather than for, the future of innovation.  What we need, instead, is more of the real world, the open world, where ties can be made and identities shifted, where the beasts are, and where the real “battles” are–meaning, the challenges of the future that inquiry can productively address without the controlling thumb of university administrators in every possible pie.



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