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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ. research connects classroom to marketplace

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Featured, News

Federal research and development efforts are failing to make the most of basic and applied research occurring in universities in communities across the country, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress. It elaborated, saying that the current relationship between federal, academic and private enterprise was detrimental to economic development.

Professor Eve Marder (BIO) disagrees, “Industry is very invested in maintaining a strong academic world. Federal grants, which pay for virtually all research at Brandeis, make universities responsible to do high quality research … and discover new knowledge that will benefit the world.” Brandeis benefits from the relationship more than most colleges, with one of the most well-developed and renowned science research facilities in the country.

As President Obama reminded the nation in last Tuesday’s State of the Union, “innovation also demands basic research,” a sentiment echoed by Marder. “Industry turns to the academic world to do its fundamental research, to set the stage and industry then develops the product,” Marder said.

Industry itself, she explained, is unwilling to incur the expense in time and money for basic research that might not pan out into a lucrative product. “Sometimes there are direct benefits to our research,” she said, “but usually it contributes to future research.”

“Most patents are worthless,” said Michael Rosbash (BIO), but a few, like the extremely profitable SmartBalance, bring in close to $1 million for the university every year.

The $60 million in sponsors, either private enterprise or the government funds more than the research. Rosbash explained that not only do these sponsors pay for obvious, like his own salary, but the research also creates a “spillover effect.” Grants given to research facilities also pay for overhead, from facilities to electricity to upkeep. And while these grants pay for the classrooms and facilities in many of the science buildings, they also spillover into the university at large in other ways.

Marder explained, “Industry wants universities to train high quality scientists who they can then hire … The grants and sponsors allow us to hire a very large number of undergraduates who work in labs. These students get the opportunity to work on real projects, even if they’re not in the sciences.” The university-industry relationship is mutually beneficial, says Marder. Undergraduate students hired in labs, especially those not majoring in the sciences, are given the opportunity to assist in a division of education to which they would not otherwise be exposed. The CAP report called for a “work force with technical skills,” which both Rosbash and Marder believe they are creating with their undergraduate and graduate programs.

“It’s a very important set of synergies,” Marder says, made possible by the now 30-year-old Bayh-Dole Act, which took patent power from the sponsors and gave it to inventors and their institutions.

The Bayh-Dole Act allows for what Marder calls “cooperative agreements” between industry and academics, the same concept called for in the CAP report and President Obama’s address to the nation.

It has allowed universities and non-profit institutions to benefit from federally funded research since 1980. Previously, the government and federal fund agencies held the patents to methods and products developed in university research facilities. “It really wasn’t efficient to have all the patents concentrated in Washington,” explained Irene Abrams, associate provost for innovation and executive director of the Office of Technology Licensing. “There was a tremendous investment in research but not a lot of commercialization.” Once universities had exclusive power to license their discoveries to private enterprise, commercial interest in supporting academia increased, and bolstered “successful economic development,” Abrams said.

“That gave Brandeis incentive to invest in obtaining patents, and to license patents to industry,” explained Professor Neil Simister (BIO). Marder conceded that while industry and academia worked well together, they fulfilled very different functions. “What industry is good at doing is looking at a possible technology and turning it into a product.”

According to Marder, a “gray area” between the research and the product development inspires a corporation to sponsor research at a university in hopes of achieving the “basic research” needed for a product.

Some feel that federal grants to research institutions is a waste of taxpayer money, and without the control of ensuing patents, there is a great deal of output without a return. Instead, private enterprise could be responsible for funding academic research, as they directly benefit. Simister retorted, “What the government gets for its investment is jobs and economic growth, and the usefulness of the invention, a drug for example, to the community,”

Brandeis as an institution receives at least $1.6 million per year from patents and the products of its research institutions. According to Irene Abrams, last year was one of the most lucrative for Brandeis­­­—patents received $2 million in royalties, half of which was from the ignominious, Brandeis-developed SmartBalance.

The university has a large enough stake in the profits to warrant legal action when the products of its research are misused.

Last September, Brandeis and GFA Brands filed suit against major cookie companies for using the Brandeis-original formula used in SmartBalance.

The income afforded by patents is relatively small, but Rosbash said the effects are not limited to financial capital, but positively affect the entire university. “It’s not specific to Brandeis though,” he said, and that universities as a whole benefited from the relationships and results of their research institutions.