Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blog on Academia and Industry Answer to Janet

Skip to article Dear Janet,


Dear Janet,

You recently (Sept. 6th, 2008) wrote an article in the New York Times entitled on universities and intellectual property in the US. This article was circulated among senior professors at my university, and had a bemused read.

Let's start with the basics. University academics have egos that range from large to XXXL. They (myself included, of course) want to be internationally acknowledged for their discoveries, theories, inventions and writings. They fight about who was the first one to detect this or that, and pine for decades when their work is not acknowledged appropriately. If scientists and other professors did not have such big egos, then perhaps no one would mind if an important paper came out written by "a group of modest folk singers at our department". Trust me, people fight hard and long not only about who gets on an academic paper, but the order of the authors as well. Show me an anonymous scientific article in a good journal. . Read James Watson's "The Double Helix" for a candid account of the egos involved in deciphering the holy grail of biology. It was not about money, it was about fame. Then, maybe money.

But that was in the 1950s, and to be frank, Janet, times have changed. In those halcyon days, relatively few people made a great deal of money, and perhaps wealth served as less of a criterion for success than it does today. Furthermore, for scientists, research money was once more widely available for so-called basic projects than it is currently. Nowadays, I agree with you that money plays a major role in academic decisions. But in this brave, new world, money seems to play a greater role in every other facet of our lives as well, including running for public office. Being a kind, knowledgeable and/or worthy human being doesn't cut it without a fat bank account.

So, at least in that sense, universities are a reflection of society in general. Society has changed, and with it our campuses. In the 1970s when I entered Tel Aviv University, there was abundant grass (the kind you step on as well), large open spaces, and a building every now and then (I even got a slight lightning shock in 1974 walking between classes!). Now, more and less savory people with the other kind of green have donated enough money for a myriad of concrete structures with their names eternally affixed to them. A kind of name graveyard. So we have the Peter Pan building for this and the Peter, Paul and Mary faculty for that. Most of these benevolent donors fought with the university to get their names emblazoned in as large a font as possible on the buildings. In at least one instance, the couple donating the building died, so they shut up that entrance and built a new one with somebody else's name on it. We don't have a single building, faculty or even department, named after anonymous. Everyone wants their due. By the way, few of these donors pay for the upkeep of these concrete edifices. Some of the buildings are beautiful, some are ugly. But one thing is certain – there is less grass on campus. And it's easy to get lost among the concrete, even for someone like me who has been here since 1973.

But again I digress. As goes the world, so goes academia. Universities are expensive elephants. And students balk at paying tuition that even approaches the cost of teaching them. They can make millions in their post campus careers, based on what we have taught them, and don't owe us a nickel. Perhaps we should be charging them royalties?

So where are we going to get our money? Some of it comes from government funds. This is a dwindling source everywhere. Salaries rise, the cost of equipment rises, and public research money trickles. So even the most esoteric of researchers, interested in obscure ancient tongues, or with a penchant for studying the writings of a forgotten thirteen century cleric, or perhaps a scientist studying why worms are brown, all have to compete with 'sexier' research topics. If their research is not "interesting", "timely", "poignant", etc., who will fund it? As a case in point, we have one very successful professor who has made a wild international career based on disputing religious events that did or did not take place 2,500 years ago. I personally could not care less whether King David was 4 foot 3, had a mustache, and ate plums. But apparently others think it is the hottest topic on earth. So, these days, there is a big impetus on all academics to perform research that can sell, on one level or another. Poignantly, research journals (which also need to sell subscriptions to survive) have changed completely since the 1950s, and are always on the lookout for sensational articles that will increase their readership. And we need to publish in them in order to advance in our careers, and draw university salary.

In most cases, researchers tend to do their own thing. They perform research of lesser and greater significance, going where their noses take them, publish their results more-or-less objectively (but, like any door-to-door salesman, make the best of whatever stock they have in hand). They pitch their research proposals to funding agencies. Researchers hope that they will be judged and promoted fairly (this does not always happen, since academic life is rife with politics). Some young academics depend on moral support from their former mentors (and are reluctant to forge into new areas). Some receive tenure, only to freeze or dry up. Others have a spectacular career, full of discovery and insight.

All academics are under increasing pressure to look good, to bring in significant research funds, to publish findings in worthy journals. The temptation is there to round corners, but still there are very few fraudulent academics.

Janet, the problems that you discuss must be considered in the context of our changing world. The careers of many academics these days do involve technologies that overlap with the commercial world. After all, the modern world is a highly technological one. You can get along quite well nowadays without reciting a single line of Shakespeare, but if you can't google, e-mail or text-message, you are a lost soul.

Those of us academics who work side-by-side with the multinational monsters, the pharma giants, the mammoth companies of food, energy, etc. have to be doubly careful. Yes, Janet, it is easy to fall prey to commercial interests when you are running a university lab, and need the support. You do need to be doubly careful. But can you blame universities for wanting to be part of the action. What if a researcher does develop a useful technique or drug? Should industry be allowed to plunder academia, or should it pay royalties that will help fund the obscure languages department?

Some researchers have managed very well with corporate support, maintaining a relatively high level of integrity and not letting commercial powers influence the interpretation of their studies and affect their publication. A few have succumbed, and have turned their laboratory into enterprises. Some university researchers have made important advances which promote health and wellbeing worldwide. Here, industries play a key role . Some universities have hired excellent administrative staff to select and manage the promising intellectual property, and have made big bucks. To these, I say bravo. To the many universities you cite in your article who are still losing money, I say, get your act together, and learn from the universities that have succeeded.

Today, researchers and institutions need the big bucks to survive. These sometimes come from donors and commercial institutions who may try to promote their agenda. I say, take the money, if you can maintain the essence of academic curiosity and discovery, and integrity on all levels. And for those of us involved in technological advances, I add, don't forget the basic role of the university as a center for education and understanding.

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