Money Over Mind

Money Over Mind

In the U.S., intellectual property is credited to universities rather than to researchers, an unjust policy that undermines individual success.

Opinion - Elyse Yang Apr 21
Illustration by Elyse Yang

 One of the best ways for students to gain relevant experience in their field is through volunteering and working at laboratories to do research. Students eventually are able to contribute to the research and perhaps even make discoveries of their own. Unfortunately, no discovery legally belongs to them or even to the professor leading the experiments. All patent rights to any inventions or discoveries are given to the university. But this appropriation is an ineffective source of revenue for the institutions, pushing researchers toward working for commercialization rather than towards academia. Researchers’ intellectual work should remain their own so that they can choose what direction their discoveries should take.Of course, universities do need to be appropriately compensated for the resources they can provide researchers. Research, whether in bioengineering or physics, requires certain tools that the average Lowe’s hardware store doesn’t have. Labs contain expensive equipment that must be bought and maintained by the university. The Association of University Technology Managers speculates that this funding comes from the $2.6 billion that American universities gain from patent royalties. However, the model used to seek compensation is not only unfair to students and workers, but also not nearly as profitable as other alternatives.

There is certainly money to be made from new technology in ways that don’t deprive the discoverers of their own fair share. Cornell Tech, a school created by Cornell University and Israeli university Technion, primarily benefits from students’ work by retaining shares in the start-up companies founded by the students. This is a good departure from the typical system used by American institutions in which universities keep the rights to researcher’s intellectual property and profit from royalties. In fact, allowing students to fully develop the company for themselves means that they become the wealthy alumni who may donate even more than what the royalties will make. Adam Schwartz, director of Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, noted that a university’s “patent revenue goes to zero, but down the line, the successful alumni give back far more money.”

Another issue with the royalty system is that it supports education and discovery not for academic pursuits, but for the institution to benefit financially. Success and relevance aren’t measured completely by profit margins and industrial success. While commercialization yields technological improvements, such as the developments of higher capacity batteries and efficient transistors that led to the iPhone, industry lacks the vision of science as a pursuit of higher knowledge and a better understanding of the physical world. Ultimately, this can undermine the actual scientific progress of research. In a joint study done by Brent Goldfarb of Rensselaer University in New York and Magnus Henrekson of Stockholm, Sweden, the results showed that commercialization is “more likely when rights are assigned to the university” with the monetary focus “diverting effort from more fundamental research endeavors.”

Currently, it is personal incentive that drives researchers to understand and formulate the theories which then become useful to other research. In fact, a study published by the Harvard Business School showed that scientists forced to sign away the rights to their work made more mistakes and were less focused. Without any legal right or credit to their findings, the minds behind the research are essentially cheated of their work and are also less motivated to succeed.

Damaging the scientific process at the research stage is incredibly harmful, as those discoveries lay the groundwork for possible real-world applications. For example, the UCSD supercomputer, Gordon, is built on today’s computer technology, with speed and size limitations that those in the industry spend much of their time trying to solve. Although it hasn’t yet been discovered, the solution is thought to lie in quantum computing, the physics theory that was all too often dismissed as impractical. While the most valuable research may appear to be distant from reality, its progressive thinking eventually yields the most revolutionary innovations.

The benefit of allowing researchers to keep their intellectual property transcends the importance of giving rights to universities. The rewards system set up by Cornell Tech provides an incentive for scientists to either pursue commercialization or prioritize their research discoveries. Ultimately, leaving these decisions up to the inventor will improve the progress of both technology and the economy.

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