Corporations often attract criticism for funding university research, but a study published Thursday argues these sometimes controversial deals produce more innovations than those subsidized with taxpayer money.
Research from UC Berkeley found that corporate-sponsored inventions at the University of California system over 15 years generated more patents and licenses – two benchmarks of innovation – than did those solely backed by the federal government, the traditional and largest source of funds.
It’s little surprise that industry-supported research produces more patents, said Laura Schoppe of Fuentek, a technology-transfer consulting company. Companies enter research deals with a sense of what the end result might be, whereas the government funds nuts-and-bolts work unattached to any particular use.
“The problems that industry brings tend to have roots in a need,” Schoppe said. “There’s a reason they’re doing it.”
Businesses provided $3.2 billion, or 5 percent, of American universities’ total research budgets in 2012, a portion that has been stable since the 1970s, according to the National Science Foundation. Such partnerships are unusually common at the UC system’s 10 campuses and three associated national laboratories, which lead discoveries in medicine, engineering and other fields.
UCSF, for instance, recently partnered with electronics giant Samsung and pharmacy chain Walgreens to develop mobile health care devices and reduce medication errors.
Critics worry that academia-industry partnerships give companies too much control over inventions and technologies that professors and students create. In one prominent example, students and faculty protested in 2007 when the oil giant BP gave $500 million to UC Berkeley to lead a decade of alternative-energy research. One academic who participated in the BP project was Brian Wright, an agricultural and resource economics professor at UC Berkeley and a co-author of the report published in the journal Nature.
The study’s conclusions “turned out the opposite from what I expected,” said Wright, who no longer receives funding from BP. “If it’s funded by a corporation, it’s more likely to generate patents, and it’s more likely to generate licenses.”
Wright and his colleagues studied more than 12,500 inventions developed within the UC system from 1990 to 2005. Nearly 1,500 inventions were backed, at least in part, by industry. Significantly more patents and licenses went to inventions developed with corporate, or corporate and federal, funding, rather than those with just government funding.
Companies also seemed surprisingly willing to share, not hog, inventions they helped fund. About half the exclusive licenses for corporate-sponsored inventions went to third parties, not the companies. And compared with federal research, the patents for industry-funded inventions were more often cited in other patents, an indication of the research’s value.
Companies may be willing to invest in university research that isn’t directly profitable when they want to explore risky, untested subjects without taking away time from their in-house scientists, Wright said.
“They also like to know about things that aren’t their business, but could be very important for them to know about,” Wright said.
The study didn’t address the long-standing fear that outside money can distort research agendas. Indeed, the authors acknowledge that the tobacco, pharmaceutical, lead and other industries have manipulated research to their benefit and suppressed unfavorable results.
John M. Simpson, an advocate at the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, argued that the quest to monetize intellectual property may distract colleges from their original mission: producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
“If they start to see tech-transfer offices primarily as yet another source of revenue for the university, I think that tends to set a research agenda sometimes in ways that are not compatible for the fundamental concept of basic research,” Simpson said.