Here is the sort of thing that appals critics of the modern American entrepreneurial university. Members of the physics department invent an electronic gadget that looks like it might be useful in aviation guidance systems. Hearing about the technology, the university's administration, including a trustee who had been a right-wing Republican President of the United States, takes control of the intellectual property and proceeds to patent it, hoping to generate licensing income for the university, and to cut in one of the inventors for a small slice of the pie. They succeed in interesting a large engineering firm in the technology; an exclusive licence is arranged, and funds begin to flow to the university, including significant sums conditional on the physics department undertaking further work in this area. The administration is delighted with the arrangement, and offers the company privileged access to the department's personnel and resources. The administration agrees to seek the company's approval before allowing any of the university's scientists to publish findings related to the technology. Among the scientists there is a certain amount of grousing about the propriety of this arrangement and its possible effect on their careers: they need to publish to secure their academic reputations. On the other hand, the deal promises a serious expansion of research resources, and, at the beginning of the relationship, there is little angst about such things as 'academic values' or a 'conflict of interests'.
LRB 11 September 2003 | PDF Download