Geese asked to consider value of golden eggs

Wellings looks to balance university interests with public good in IP review. John Gill reports

March 27, 2008

How much of the money earned by exploiting academics' ideas should be kept by universities? How can the wider public good best be served?

These are among the fundamental questions to be examined as part of the review by Paul Wellings of how universities exploit their intellectual property - part of a series of seven government reviews designed to ensure that the sector remains "world class" in 10 to 15 years.

Professor Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, believes that the outcome of the inquiries, with remits ranging from widening access to internationalisation, could be as "profound" as the 1997 Dearing review of higher education, which ushered in student tuition fees for the first time.

Outlining the terms of his review to Times Higher Education, he said: "It would be a mistake to believe that the IP question is solely about the commercialisation process and the interface between universities and business.

"What I'm really being asked to look at is the whole pipeline: the creation of IP within institutions, the role of graduate students, the management of the process within the institution, the route to market and the interface with the business world as the IP is spun off, patented or licensed through to market.

"It's quite a broad invitation, and I think that in the process, inevitably, I will need to go back to the question of what is the role of the university in capturing benefit versus what is the wider economic impact for UK plc. That's the traditional debate: is the role of the university to maximise its benefit or to assist and develop social and environment settings in the UK?"

A study last year headed by Peter Saraga, a board member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, examined university-business collaborative negotiations, and Professor Wellings that said this would provide a useful point of reference for his own review.

"It concluded that the primary role (of the university-business interface) is to add value to businesses rather than to maximise profit for the university," he said.

"If you look around the world, that motif is played out very often, and I suspect that most people within higher education would have some sympathy with that."

He added: "It is about the effectiveness of the transfer process. It may be that in order to be effective you have to protect the IP so that it is not a value-destroying engagement with business - actually leaving it unprotected may be the worst possible thing to do."

Announcing the reviews last month, John Denham, the Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary, highlighted the difficult balance that Professor Wellings would need to achieve.

He said: "As Secretary of State for Higher Education, I want institutions to reap the fruits of their own labour. But as Secretary of State for Innovation, I want to see financial benefits flow through the economy and the wider diffusion of knowledge across the country."

Professor Wellings said that his previous career - working for one of the world's largest public research organisations, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia - left him well placed to carry out the assessment.

"I was deputy chief executive of a very large public research organisation before I became a vice-chancellor and in that capacity had responsibility for a whole range of activities to do with the business development associated to scientific research," he said.

While the review will look at the handling of IP at institutional level and beyond, it will not be in its remit to consider the role of the individual academic in the process.

Professor Wellings said: "At most universities, though not all, academics assign IP to the institution, so the governance and management of IP is an institutional matter.

"Clearly, academics need to be involved in the development of IP, because it is their ideas very often, but that's not a hugely contested area."

The focus, then, will be on the wider benefits of IP development, and the return made on investment in research.

"Legitimately, the Government is asking: what is the impact of the investment in research in universities, what are the wider benefits of those investments, and how do we make sure, in what is a very complicated pipeline, to develop ideas that might have impact, that we're doing it to maximum effect?

"These are important questions: are we getting proper value for UK taxpayers in those sorts of activities within universities?"

john.gill@tsleducation.com

THE CHALLENGE

In a speech last month, John Denham, the Innovation, Universities and Skills Secretary, spelt out the task:

"Universities need to address practical issues around helping to translate knowledge into innovation and thereby adding real economic benefit. In a recent survey, just 2 per cent of businesses said they rate universities as an important source of information about innovation. Institutions and the country are paying a heavy cost for this lack of engagement.

"I have picked up ... worries about the ability of universities to make the necessary links between the development of innovative ideas and the teaching of skills to convert them into commercial successes.

"I have picked up worries about the cultural gap that can divide universities and businesses ... even the use of completely different language, so that neither side knows how to approach the other."

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