The Implication of the APLU’s Nonsense on Technology Transfer

The APLU’s fakographic keeps giving. I’ve discussed it previously. The basic idea behind the APLU graphic is that there is a set process by which research discoveries move from the laboratory to public use. This process sure sounds great, and the APLU intends that. But the process is fantasy, at best aspiration with random instances taken as confirmation; at worst, the process is something in the nature of fraud or coercion.

When a colleague of mine went through our university’s licenses, he found only a handful of inventions that had followed our published “process,” which resembled what APLU describes. Everything else–scores–of licenses had followed other pathways. The process was an aspiration. It was a goal to someday make happen, to cajole or coerce inventors to attempt; to get industry to adopt. There was something of an evangelical fervor in providing “training” for those involved. Except that things rarely happen that way.

Compliance with a university’s intellectual property policy is largely an exercise in being made to participate in an administrative fantasy or face the ruination of one’s career. 

The APLU fakographic leaves out how universities obtain ownership of inventions–by coercion and breaching their federal funding agreements–and fails to point out that most universities trade on the monopoly right in a patent by licensing exclusively (in the rare case that they do license) all substantial rights in an invention. The APLU fakographic treats an administrative aspiration as fact and claiming one process when there are many. The fakographic makes it appear that patenting is a precondition for public benefit and that commercialization is the only or best or first reason to patent.

The overall fakery of the APLU fakographic, however, is that federal dollars need to keep coming to universities because this process that APLU describes operates to the benefit of “all Americans.” According to the little published information on the matter, university inventions are licensed through to at least the bare minimum of commercial sales once in 200 inventions. And within that number, we can expect that many fewer followed the “process” described by APLU.

The APLU wants university technology transfer to appear systematically successful because then the public won’t question the federal funding going to universities. The desire for funding for “basic” research may be fine. Even the desire that this funding go preferentially to universities may be fine. But can’t APLU come up with any legitimate reasons for this funding? If federal funding is such a good idea, why lie about it as their primary communication to the public?

I thought by way of context I would put together something of a competing graphic that builds on the APLU argument.


At night, when university administrators dream of finding some meaning to their lives,

they imagine a world in which every discovery comes from a laboratory,

and is a breakthrough

and inventors willing give up their rights to university administrators one way

or another,

and these administrators license each and every one of those discoveries to companies,

because these breakthrough discoveries it turns out (it is a dream, remember, so stuff shifts around) can only be beneficial if a company has a monopoly position and charges monopoly prices

and is willing to share those monopoly prices with the university,

where they go first of all to pay administrators’ salaries, so the process can repeat, and grow, and last.

Bzzzz-innng. Time to wake up.

Again, this is all a dream, and it’s fine if APLU wants to report on what administrators report they dream about. But it’s not fine to make dreams appear to be facts and make tiny facts–a handful of things get licensed and become monopoly products–into universal truths.

What is the purpose of APLU creating such nonsense and putting it out for the public to see? Perhaps there’s an infographic gap and APLU feels the need to rush out an infographic so as not to be left behind. But I rather think not. It’s more likley (speculation here, of course), that administrators at APLU (they are all administrators there, I fear) want people to believe that university technology transfer is being amazingly successful, that it works as a process, and that process is managed by university administrators, and the outcome is improved quality of life “for all Americans.” And why this claim, untrue as it is from all the evidence but for the dreams of university administrators? Ah, it’s back to that adjective “critical.” The research is “critical” that produces this fantasy process. It is (I speculate) APLU’s purpose to make university research so important that no one would think to reduce it.

And if that’s the case, then perhaps right now the APLU in its administrative back rooms has felt some concern that university research might get cut. And if that is the worry, what better way to counter it than by printing up some pretty colored infographic full of mistakes, deception, omissions, and fantasy?

It would appear (again, I speculate, forgive me) that APLU cannot come up with a really good reason for the federal government to blow $40 billion or so a year on university research.

Now here’s the thing–perhaps APLU ought to be worried. Of all the mechanisms by which federally supported research inventions come into use, universities obtaining patents and licensing monopoly positions to companies is about the worst of them. That’s what Harbridge House found fifty years ago. I don’t expect anything has changed–other than that university monopoly licensing is about 10x less effective than it was then. If the federal government wanted to increase the likelihood that inventions made with federal support would get used, the government should shift its basic research from universities to companies. That’s right–keep the same budget, but spend a whole lot more of that budget on company-based basic research. Gin up some new big corporate labs doing basic research, like Watson or Bell or HP.

All those university vice presidents insisting that basic research funding is critical are perhaps right. But if the purpose of that basic research is making new technological products under monopoly conditions–and that’s what APLU’s infographic insists is the case–then it would be a whole lot more effective to do that basic research in company laboratories, where breakthroughs are already in the hands of capable companies. Skip the university trawler netting up all ideas. Skip the marketing to companies. Skip the transfer of ideas to companies. The companies will already have the ideas. If they don’t want to patent these inventions, then release them to their inventors, or to the winds. Anything but let university administrators into the loop–or federal agencies trying to license for monopoly rights, for that matter.

But if Vannevar Bush was right, then basic research is not at all about making commercial products under a patent monopoly that spans laboratories and the favorite companies of university bureaucrats. Basic research is about the free play of free intellects expanding our knowledge of natural phenomena. What comes of it is on down the line, not part of a bureaucratic process, not captured by institutional patenting, not to be “commercialized” to the exclusion of everything else, to the exclusion of research uses, of improvements, of cumulative technology, of commons, of open innovation, of standards, of DIY, of industry self-implementation.

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