Large sums of federal research money pour into Harvard annually, financing everyone from accelerator specialists to zoologists. The recipients hire more graduate students, buy new equipment, do more research, and record their thanks for the grants in the footnotes to their articles.
But, though basic research is the norm, every once in a while a professor develops something with immediate, practical, and even money-making possibilities. From that point on, he has nothing but trouble.
As soon as he reports his discovery, he hears from every federal agency that has been helping to pay for his research, no matter how small the share. He starts bargaining for his patent rights. Regulations vary from agency to agency, but when the professor finishes bargaining, he may well find himself without any control over his discovery or any chance to share in the profits from it.
Of course, there may be no profits to begin with. Once the discovery is in government hands, it may be the last anyone hears of it. All government-owned patents are in the public domain; any firm can use them. How many companies are going to spend their own time and money developing an invention when they know other companies can jump into the market at any time?
The present system is a parody of the one President Kennedy tried to set up a few weeks before his assassination, when he issued a memorandum on patents to his executive department heads. He insisted that, since the government pays for the professors' research, it should be able to decide how their discoveries are used and who makes money from them. But he wanted the policy to be flexible, with plenty of consideration for the professors.
It hasn't worked out that way because every agency has developed its own interpretation of the Kennedy memo. The Defense Department generally lets professors hold on to patents with commercial applications; the National Institute of Health does just the opposite.
The confusion will probably end next year, when Congress is expected to vote on a government-wide patent policy.
Unfortunately, the man most interested in patent legislation is Sen. Russell Long (D.-La.), Senate majority whip, who doesn't believe the professors necessarily have any rights. The professors may make the discoveries, but the people are paying for them, Long argues. Since the discoveries are public property, he says, federal agencies, not professors, should decide what is done with them. Left on their own, the agencies undoubtedly would, as they do now, leave many of the professors out in the cold.
That would leave the professors one alternative, if they wanted it: switch from the universities to industry.
Harvard officials have stayed aloof from the entire controversy. At first glance, the University doesn't have much to worry about. Not many patents are applied for here--a survey a few years ago uncovered only ten major patents in the two previous decades.
But that's just the point. Major advances in applied research are rare at Harvard. The men who make them are often exceptional researchers, such as Carroll Williams, professor of Biology, currently involved in a patent fight. They are often exceptional discoveries, such as Williams' hormone insecticide. It's in Harvard's interest to encourage them.
The University's present policy supposedly does. Unless his discovery is in the fields of public health or therapy, Harvard permits a professor to patent it and make every cent he can from it.
But, in reality, Harvard's policy doesn't make any difference. It's the federal agencies which now control the discoveries. The Long bill will make their control permanent.
Alternatives have been offered to Long's scheme. Sen. John McClellan (D.-Ark.) has suggested setting aside certain categories of research in which professors could apply for patents. It's also been proposed that professors be allowed to profit from their discoveries for a limited time after making them.
But observers of the controversy believe that Long's bill, or something like it, will pass. And why shouldn't it, as long as universities like Harvard--which have most to gain from modification of the Long bill--keep a polite and neutral silence?
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