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EDITORIAL: Patents shouldn’t decide tenure


This month’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America featured an article written by USF Vice President for Research and Innovation Paul Sanberg arguing patents and commercialization should influence a professor’s tenure and promotions.

In “Changing the Academic Culture: Valuing Patents and Commercialization Toward Tenure and Career Advancement,” Sanberg discussed how measuring this translational research promotes a university’s economic development with research leading to commercialized results, providing an incentive for those seeking tenure to generate material products.

While university research has led to patents such as the hepatitis B vaccine and Google, as Sanberg notes, placing greater weight on patents values translational research over necessary basic research and in some cases prioritizes monetary gain over knowledge-based pursuits.

Though Sanberg defends funding for basic research, making patents a criteria for tenure suggests academic and career advancement should be defined by the creation of products for consumers.

While translational research and technology transfer, or the commercialization of patents, has the potential to increase revenue for universities and professors and enhance institutional prestige, this process would overlook basic research, even though this type of research is often the underpinning of ground-breaking patents.

One common example of a widely used product resulting from basic research is the MRI machine, which developed from the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machine used to study the properties of atoms. However, the initial objective for this was not to create an innovation in medical technology.

Not only does focusing on patents resulting from translational research undermine the benefits of basic research, but some point out a preoccupation with patents can hinder the advancement of potentially invaluable research that may not be marketable.

For example, when Dr. Donald Stein found progesterone might help heal brain injuries with rat experimentations in the 1960s, he had difficulty furthering his research because it would not yield a profitable pharmaceutical patent.

Stein’s work eventually led to a clinical trial that determined the hormone reduced mortality by 60 percent in those with severe brain injury, despite the previous idea that brain injury is irreversible. However, it took almost four decades for him to begin human research.

Additionally, Sanberg and his colleagues did not forget to mention how the humanities and arts play into patenting. The article specifically cites a University of Michigan School of Music memo’s alternative for tenure and promotions within the humanities, offering options such as formation of start-up companies, improving products or services and advancing student entrepreneurship.

However, while patents and licensing may be flexible, it is a stretch to suggest commercialization should occur in fields where it is not necessarily a goal of academic research.

A 2012 survey indicates 25 of the nation’s top research universities factor patents into tenure and promotions, as mentioned in the article. Institutions such as Virginia Tech, the University of Arizona and Texas A&M currently do so.

The USF Faculty Senate is drafting tenure and promotions guidelines to include patents, and the non-unionized USF Health faculty already incorporates them.

If the university does adjust its criteria, it should follow the University of Arizona’s guidelines and promote an “inclusive view of scholarship,” which considers patents and peer-reviewed publications rather than just prioritizing the commercialization of academic endeavors.