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Universities Promise More Tech Transfer

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Science  29 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5599, pp. 1699a-1701a
DOI: 10.1126/science.298.5599.1699a

TORONTO—Canadian university administrators hope they haven't struck a Faustian bargain. In return for a promise by the government to double research funding and create a permanent fund to pay the overhead costs of conducting federally funded research, universities have agreed to do a better job of turning academic research into commercial products. The deal gives each side something it badly wants, at a price both sides appear willing to pay.

The terms of the quid pro quo were announced here last week, at the National Summit on Innovation and Learning. The event, held despite a nationwide snowstorm, gave more than 500 members of Canada's academic, business, and financial elite a chance to offer final comments on the government's ever-evolving blueprint for doubling federal research spending (Science, 15 February, p. 1211). The doubling would raise the R&D budget to $9.2 billion by 2010.

Industry Minister Alan Rock says that the tradeoff, part of a proposed Framework Agreement on Federally Funded Research, marks the first time that academia has formally acknowledged its responsibility to generate economic wealth. “I wanted to commit them [academic institutions] in principle to a link between public funding and economic outcomes,” he says.

At the core of the deal lies a government promise to roll a “one-time” allocation this year of $125 million for overhead costs associated with publicly funded research into some form of permanent funding program in next year's federal budget. The government also vowed to revive a promise to double outlays by 2010 for the three federal granting councils and to support training of more graduate students.

In return, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) agreed to “a doubling of the amount of research performed by universities and a tripling of commercialization performance” over the same period of time.

The parties must still iron out how to measure growth in academia's contribution to the economy. Canadian universities now lag well behind their U.S. counterparts on standard measures, such as licensing revenues, because of Canadian industry's reduced capacity to make use of new knowledge and technology, says Association of University Technology Managers president Janet Scholz of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg (see graphic).

Southern advantage.

U.S. universities generally do more to commercialize research than their Canadian counterparts do.

SOURCE: ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY TECHNOLOGY MANAGERS, 2000 SURVEY

University leaders seem satisfied with both the terms and the overall symbolism of the arrangement. “Because we're starting a bit lower, tripling [of commercial activities] is realistic,” says Claude Lajeunesse, president of Ryerson University in Toronto. “It will require very, very strong commitment from researchers. But once they understand that this is not a threat to their freedom or their research and that, rather, it is something that will help them pursue new areas and, in a sense, be more relevant, then the vast majority will say this is good.”

“No doubt there will be a lot of discussion about the appropriate benchmarks” for measuring commercial performance, says AUCC vice chair Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “The amount of money spent, the amount of licenses that could be expected to result, patents, and start-ups: All of these things would be relevant.”

Several administrators note wryly that tripling commercialization output shouldn't prove too great a challenge, given that the current base is so low. They also don't anticipate the need to change current rules that generally assign intellectual property rights to individuals rather than the institution, as recommended by the national Advisory Council on Science and Technology (Science, 30 April 1999, p. 726).

The government won't penalize individual universities that fall short, Rock says, because the promise applies in the aggregate. But neither will it allocate funds to help universities hire or train staff to promote research findings to business. However, universities may choose to use a portion of the monies allocated for so-called indirect costs to promote commercialization.

Before the promise becomes reality, Rock must successfully negotiate with other government factions seeking massive hikes in funding to rejuvenate the national health care system, retool the military, and honor environmental commitments from Canada's embrace of the Kyoto protocols. But Rock believes that he will have an easy sell to his Cabinet colleagues. “How are we going to be able to afford all this? The answer, of course, is innovation,” he says. “If you innovate, if you increase productivity and competitiveness, your economy performs better, more people are employed, the revenues increase, and you're able to afford to do more.”

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