Posted tagged ‘Stanford University’

Securing compliance?

November 24, 2011

The Stanford University website contains a list of the university’s ‘compliance offices and officers’. You may wish to note that there are 25 of these, ranging from ‘donor gift restrictions’ to ‘immigration’. And while most of us do not have this kind of wealth of compliance-focused structures, many universities nowadays find themselves almost overwhelmed with regulatory bureaucracy.

Of course it is important to maintain good practice, and areas such as health and safety, data protection, financial probity and so on should be the focus of vigilance, in universities as elsewhere. However, we have gradually been sucked into a compliance mentality that makes institutions risk averse, with people often concerned with covering their backs while grappling with the extensive paperwork.

Perhaps one of the chief problems is that many, like Stanford, see this as a matter of ‘compliance’. The main context is one of policing wrongdoing, rather than encouraging good practice. It may be time to look again at how standards are maintained and enhanced; the current system may not be the way to do that.

Who owns the research outputs?

March 2, 2011

For ten years, through the 1990s, I worked as a professor of law in the University of Hull in Northern England. Every so often I would be present at the kind of conversation where people mused on missed opportunities, and one of the recurring topics under that heading was why the university had not become super-duper rich from the proceeds of its best known invention, liquid crystal displays (LCD). This technology was developed in the 1960s by a research team in Hull led by Professor George William Gray. However in 1970 a patent for LCD was filed by the Swiss company Hoffmann-LaRoche, and in the end the University of Hull never benefited materially beyond getting recognition for this work in some scholarly articles. The big question always was, what went wrong, and why did Hull not protect its discovery?

The issue remains a live one, and partly because universities want to maximise the payback from discoveries most now maintain full-time patent officers and, sometimes, whole legal teams. The issues are complex and involve the following considerations:

• Most (but not all) major university discoveries have been funded by the taxpayer, and it is thought to be unacceptable if the profits from this flow largely or entirely into private or corporate pockets.
• Universities often expect academics who discover something that can be commercialised to recognise that the output is university property, as it was developed on their time and with their resources.
• On the other hand, universities also want to incentivise staff to work on such discoveries.
• Companies want to work with universities where the latter can support them to develop products or processes that have commercial potential, and will fund university work, but expect to be able to secure as their property any resulting discoveries.

All these different interests can compete with each other in securing intellectual property and gaining profits from it. One recent example of the disputes that may arise is a case that just this week has gone to the US Supreme Court, involving a new method to detect HIV developed at Stanford University. The case involves the conflicting interests of the university, the researcher who developed the process and the company now commercialising it – ironically Roche (as Hoffmann-LaRoche is now called). The question for the Court is whether the academic in question was entitled to assign the intellectual property to the company, or whether it was Stanford’s property.

What are we to conclude? First, there needs to be legal certainty that serves all the various interests but in particular protects the public interest – which must be that research should be encouraged and that it should be translated into use as effectively as possible., but also in a way that supports commercial involvement. Secondly, universities need to have clear agreements with their employees as to the distribution of rights and interests. Thirdly, universities need to be good at recognising which pieces of intellectual property are worth protecting and which are not. Registering a patent costs money, but much more importantly defending it can cost a fortune. If the end product isn’t worth much, then the registration isn’t worth the effort and cost either.

On the whole universities need support in this, and certainly should pool their resources. But all sides should take this topic very seriously. University-based research is likely to be a major contributor to economic activity in the future.

Stanford to review nature and purpose of undergraduate education

February 16, 2010

I have recently been making the point on this blog that we need a proper review of the pedagogy of higher education, rather than its structures. It is interesting to see therefore that Stanford University in California has put together a task force to do just that. The group is made up entirely of internal academics, but given the standing of Stanford’s faculty this is a very high powered task force. It is intended that it will report in 18 months, but with an interim report coming before then.

The agenda of the task force has been set out as follows:

‘The growing social, political, economic and ecological interconnectedness of the world certainly challenges us to look more broadly at what it means to be an educated citizen. How do these changes affect what today’s student needs from an undergraduate education? What do we want our students to gain from their time on the [campus]? How do we best prepare them for local, national and global citizenship?’

It may well be instructive for us in Ireland to observe what findings and recommendations come from this group.