Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Elizabeth Popp Berman's "Creating the Market University"

Elizabeth Popp Berman is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine, and reported the following:
It’s pretty common these days to call universities “economic engines.” Administrators at my own university, the State University of New York, are constantly talking about how it can drive economic development, foster entrepreneurship, and create jobs. Some of this is real, and some of it’s just rhetoric—in SUNY’s case, from a university system desperate to replace the 30% of its state appropriations that evaporated over three years.

Universities didn’t always think of themselves as economic engines, though. In the 1960s, the governor of Illinois asked the University of Illinois to consider how it could encourage regional economic growth. A committee that included some very smart physicists, engineers, economists and urban planners met for two years and reported, basically, that they had no idea. The difference between then and now is remarkable.

Creating the Market University is my attempt to answer the question, What changed? Why did universities start to see their research not just as new knowledge or the solution to practical problems, but as a first step in the creation of new products? In a nutshell, I argue that there were two reasons. One is the rise of an idea: that technological innovation drives economic growth. The second is its result: right around 1980, policymakers became enamored with this idea and made a bunch of policy decisions that started treating science more like something you could buy and sell in the marketplace. Together, these changes led to the takeoff of all sorts of entrepreneurial practices in universities, like industry partnerships and biotech startups.

Chapter Four looks at one of these practices, the patenting and licensing of university inventions. Before 1980, a lot of government-funded research—that is, most of the research done in academia—couldn’t be patented. After 1980, when the Bayh-Dole Act passed, it could be patented, and was. But the debate about whether such research should be patented goes back much further. Page 99 gives some of this history. After World War II, Vannevar Bush, who ran the U.S. science effort during the war, and Senator Harley Kilgore argued about whether or not to allow the patenting of government-funded research:
Bush, who was politically conservative and had close ties to industry, argued that patents were an absolutely necessary incentive to encourage private-sector investment in technology. He supported a government-license policy. [That would have meant industry or universities could patent government-funded research.] Kilgore, on the other hand, was a “true New Dealer with a distrust of monopolies that dated from the days when his father was driven out of business by Standard Oil.” He thought that giving contractors patent rights would hinder the free flow of scientific information, especially since industry had a motive to restrict, rather than spread, the dissemination of research. Kilgore’s initial proposal gave all patent rights to the government, though a later revision would have allowed the sponsoring agency to assign rights to the inventor under certain conditions.
What’s interesting is that despite everything that’s changed, the arguments Bush and Kilgore made are remarkably similar to the ones we hear today. For the record, neither of them won the debate, and government patent policy was a complicated mess for the next 35 years.
Learn more about Creating the Market University at the Princeton University Press website and Elizabeth Popp Berman’s website.

Writers Read: Elizabeth Popp Berman.

--Marshal Zeringue