UCLA-professor-turned-venture-capitalist Nir Kossovsky recently talked about how profits, once considered an almost shameful motive for academic research, have increasingly become its driving force. As he summed it up, "Faculty who drive Porsches are not necessarily embarrassed anymore.''
The hope of commercial reward helped drive scientists to a wealth of promising discoveries in 2001, from cancer-fighting "smart bombs" targeted on genetically based biochemical defects to "nanocircuits," just a few dozen atoms that may soon outperform computer chips thousands of times their size. But as a recent controversy among scientists over an obscure, two-decade-old law illustrates, commercialization does not inevitably breed good science.
Entrepreneurially adept scientists credit the so-called Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which surrendered federal rights to intellectual property developed with taxpayer money, for the spike in corporate giving to public universities. The total went from $850 million in 1985 to $4.25 billion in 1995. These scientists argue that the law, by motivating researchers to make the investment to turn an idea into a product, inspired thousands of scientists to market research that had been gathering dust.
In an editorial in Science magazine last week, however, former Stanford University President Donald Kennedy suggests that the Bayh-Dole Act is actually a mixed blessing, with the potential to both destroy and inspire good science. Kennedy provocatively compares Bayh-Dole with the law that gave rise to the modern American West: the Homestead Act of 1862, which handed out 160 acres of public land to settlers willing to improve the lots. The Homestead Act inspired plenty of development, but its ambiguity led to conflicting claims that kept good land fallow. It also aggravated the West's present water shortages by doing little to prevent overdevelopment on arid land.