Scientists patently poor at capitalising on new ideas

June 23, 1995

A decade of Government policy aimed at helping university scientists to become more adept at commercial exploitation of their work has failed to improve their knowledge and expertise in the use of the patent system, according to a national survey.

The study says the scientists need to be armed with new skills to exploit intellectual property rights from their work and that many scientists still have little idea of how to obtain and maintain the intellectual property they generate. It adds that in spite of recent improvements, there are still legal and managerial tensions between patenting and academic research. Universities still hold relatively few patents.

The two-year study gathered data from 60 universities and was carried out by Andrew Webster and Kathryn Packer at the science and technology studies unit at Anglia Polytechnic University. The work dealt mainly with intellectual property issues in pharmacology and medical and agricultural biotechnology and was backed by the Economic and Social Research Council.

According to the report, scientists need the ability to rewrite scientific work in patent style, the skill to access, search and use patent literature as well as the ability to distinguish legal from scientific novelty and utility.

The survey found that patents held by universities totalled 572 -160 dealing with advances in the biosciences. While some universities had no patents, the highest number held was 60. A third of universities had compiled a written intellectual property policy and less than 40 per cent of respondents said that their institution's intellectual property work was self funding. Having a large number of patents does not necessarily lead to high levels of licence income: only eight universities earned more than Pounds 10,000 from their bioscience patents.

The authors question the argument that patenting by universities can help boost economic growth through technology transfer. Very few scientists had initiated links with industry through patenting and many of those who had licensed patents already had good links with the firms involved. The researchers also uncovered a number of examples where scientists delayed or restricted their disclosure of information to protect their patenting positions. This could lead to less information being available to firms, governments and public bodies, says the report.

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