An interesting commentary in Science by D. Malakoff describes the many approaches that universities are taking to assure that their research ‘pays off’ in the commercial arena. However, as the article points out, for every major success, such as NYU’s $650M from Remicade, there are many more failures with less than 1% of academic intellectual property earning $1M. Many technology transfer offices cost far more to run than any revenues they return to the university. To this observer this intense pursuit of commercial and entrepreneurial activity is another sign of the increasing corporatization of American universities and a turning away from their traditional role as the creators of new knowledge that broadly benefits society.
Many research-intensive universities, especially public ones, are struggling to demonstrate their economic relevance to their masters in state legislatures. However, trying to do this on the basis of patents issued or royalties generated is likely to be a losing proposition. Universities need to devise better appraisals of the positive impact of their research on economic wellbeing and not have it defined in narrow commercial terms.