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A Prescription for Tech Transfer: Focus Less on Patents, More on Partnerships

With the rate of growth in federal research spending essentially stagnant, universities hoping to profit from some of the bright ideas of their faculty must pay more attention than ever to developing partnerships with industry, a top University of Virginia official said recently at AAAS.

W. Mark Crowell, chief innovation officer and an associate vice president of the university, said his school is taking a new approach to technology transfer, with less emphasis on the number of faculty patents that might produce licensing revenue and more stress on collaborative research projects that have promise of social and economic benefit.


W. Mark Crowell | AAAS/Earl Lane


The number of operating startup companies in 2012, as reported in a survey of 194 U.S. universities and research institutes.


"Ten years ago, technology transfer was the ugly stepchild on campus," Crowell said. Now, he said, technology licensing officers at major universities are being asked to be all things: product developers, economic developers, collaboration managers, revenue generators, management recruiters, even global health experts.

To address such challenges, he said, his university established the chief innovation officer position 3 ½ years ago to weave innovation into the fabric of the university and start changing an academic culture that historically has been suspicious of university-industry collaboration.

As part of the change, Crowell said, "We are focusing much less on patents" and more on partnerships and deals that can lead to worthwhile spinoffs from university research that address real-world problems. The university also is looking for better ways to measure the impact of innovative ideas and reward those who develop them. That includes giving faculty members a larger share of licensing royalties and persuading deans and department heads that tenure decisions should include a faculty member's success in the commercial realm as well as the academic.

There are now 55 start-up companies in the Charlottesville area tied to research developments at the University of Virginia, Crowell noted, and the school seeks to create a "sticky environment" that will encourage entrepreneurial students and faculty members to create companies and jobs in the local area. But he said such loyalty cannot be forced.

"We can't ignore the world outside of Charlottesville," Crowell said, since innovators often must work across institutional and geographic boundaries to pursue their ventures and develop products. Among the products under development by UVa-related startups: software protection services; new diagnostics for male fertility; a rapid allergen test; hand-held ultrasonic imaging equipment; high-performance surface coatings; and teacher development guides.

Innovation and commercialization need to be "valued more highly, taught more widely and practiced more robustly," Crowell told the 10th annual AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy on 21 November.

The week-long seminar (18-22 Nov.) was a "crash course" in science and technology policy for 24 participants with diverse backgrounds and interests. They heard from specialists at AAAS and elsewhere, including Capitol Hill and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on how Washington works and how U.S. science policy is crafted within an unsettled budgetary and legislative environment.


Vaughan Turekian | AAAS/Earl Lane

Crowell spoke at session on current issues in science policy that also included talks by Vaughan Turekian, the chief international officer of AAAS, on science diplomacy; Herbert S. Lin, chief scientist for the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, on cybersecurity; and Coral Davenport, energy and climate reporter for The New York Times, on energy policy.

Turekian reviewed past and recent uses of science as a tool for building better relations between nations, particularly in circumstances where formal diplomatic relations may be strained or non-existent. He recalled visits of non-governmental scientists, including former AAAS President Peter Agre — a Nobel laureate in chemistry — to Cuba and North Korea in 2009 and Burma (Myanmar) in 2010. A small AAAS delegation led by Agre also visited Iran in 2012.

"It's different from Ping-Pong diplomacy," Turekian said, referring to the use of the table sport as an initial opening toward China in the early 1970s. "It's about a relationship focused on mutual interest." Science can provide a pathway to better personal relationships, often with members of a nation's elite who are in a position to influence national policy. By collaborating on important societal issues - such as seismology with Iran or hurricane forecasting with Cuba -scientists from the United States can help build trust and open doors to bilateral dialogue, Turekian said.

In some cases, just a simple personal gesture can ease tensions. Turekian described how Agre, toward the end of an intense six-day visit to North Korea, removed his necktie during a formal dinner and presented it to a high-ranking science official, noting that it was the tie that Agre had worn to deliver his Nobel Prize lecture. "He only asked that the first Nobel laureate from North Korea wear the tie at the ceremony," Turekian said. The North Koreans appreciated the gesture - one which facilitated communications between the two sides.

"A perfectly secure computer is useless."

Herbert S. Lin

Herbert Lin offered the seminar participants a cautionary tale on the limits of policy in coping with cybersecurity threats. Lin has been the study director of major National Research Council projects on public policy and information technology, including a 2007 study on cybersecurity research (Toward a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace).

"Cybersecurity will be a never-ending problem," Lin said. "There are a lot of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and we're going to have to learn to live with it."

There are approaches to improving security that can work, Lin said, including reducing reliance on information technology in key circumstances. Some electric power plants are connected to the Internet for economic reasons, he said, but that makes them vulnerable to cyber attacks that can disrupt the electrical grid. "An internet connection isn't necessary for everything," Lin said.

Companies also can promote safer user behavior by insisting on more complex passwords, ensuring redundancy in computer systems so that backup capabilities are available, and isolating system components so that failures do not spread.


Herbert S. Lin | AAAS/Earl Lane

But Lin warned that "a perfectly secure computer is useless" because information technology is useful only to the extent that information can move in and out for processing.

Defensive measure can slow a cyber adversary, Lin said, but offense inevitably beats defense. The attacker only has to succeed once to wreak havoc while the defender must be able to repel numerous intrusion attempts.

Policy actions in the cybersecurity area have essentially stalled, Lin said, because the costs of action beyond immediate business needs are high and not obviously necessary. Furthermore, Lin said, the costs of inaction are not borne by the relevant decision makers, who often tend to discount the future danger. "The nation bears the cost," he said. "They don't."

In addition, Lin said, the resources to deal with cyber assaults are limited compared to the magnitude of the threat. He said there are numerous policy dilemmas, including whether victims of cyber assaults should be permitted or encouraged to respond with attacks of their own against the perpetrators. When attacks are national in scope — China is generally regarded as the biggest perpetrator of cyber-espionage for economic reasons, for example — what should be the response? Also, under what circumstances should the Pentagon's U.S. Cyber Command conduct military operations in cyber space and under whose authority?


Coral Davenport | AAAS/Earl Lane

Coral Davenport also offered a measured assessment of the ability of Washington officials to grapple with a key policy challenge: fundamental changes in energy economics and use.

"Major federal government investment in clean energy is dead for the foreseeable future," she said, and efforts to institute carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade system for curbing greenhouse gas emissions are "politically toxic" in the ideologically charged environment on Capitol Hill.

Still, Davenport said President Barack Obama remains determined to make changes in energy policy through regulatory rather than legislative changes, including efforts to curb carbon emissions at new coal-burning power plants. A final rule from the Environmental Protection Agency is due by the middle of 2015. The rule, if successfully upheld against likely court challenges, would "effectively end construction of new coal power plants in the United States," Davenport said. A rule to curb carbon emissions at existing coal-burning plants also is expected by mid-2015, she said, which could lead to the closure of many existing plants.

The growing availability of natural gas in the United States, thanks to a process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," has been a policy gift to the Obama administration, Davenport said, making it easier for utilities to switch to cleaner-burning gas in power plants.

"Major federal government investment in clean energy is dead for the foreseeable future."

Coral Davenport

On the climate change front, Davenport sees some encouraging signs at the local level, where cities and towns have been bearing the brunt of increasingly intense storms and droughts. Officials who have seen three floods in five years, she said, are less likely to view climate change through an ideological lens and are more likely to talk about practical solutions for adapting to a changing climate.

Participants expressed satisfaction with the leadership seminar. Tracy Richmond McKnight, an associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at the University of California, San Francisco, said she has "been learning ways that I can influence policy and still continue to do my current job." She said the seminar also has been useful in explaining how decisions are made to fund science, a concern for many scientists during a time of budget stringency.

"It's been very interesting," said Jack Westwood, vice consul for science and innovation at the British Consulate in Chicago. He signed up for the seminar to increase his understanding of the interaction between science and policy in the United States. "My job entails speaking to a lot of scientists in the Midwest," said Westwood, whose territory covers 13 states. "This has really enabled me to get a better understanding of issues faced by scientists in the U.S. when they are trying to have their voices heard" in Washington. It also has given him insight, he said, on how policymakers craft legislation affecting science.


Earl Lane

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