[EAS]Virtuous Circle?

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Fri Aug 31 04:15:58 EDT 2001

Subject:   Virtuous Circle?

(from INNOVATION, 22 August 2001)

It was once taken for granted that ivory tower academic purity and 
commercial success were diametric opposites; that for professors to
cash in  on their academic excellence would somehow sully their
ability to think  great thoughts. Today, universities and their
leading researchers are  working together to turn the products of
academic research into profitable  entrepreneurial ventures. Sir
David Lane, professor of molecular oncology  at the University of
Dundee, is a good example of a happy marriage between  academia and
commerce. Famous for his cancer discoveries, Lane is a fellow  of
the Royal Society and one of the world's leading cancer
researchers. He  is also a successful businessman, having founded
Cyclacel to transform his  research into clinical treatments. Diane
Taylor, deputy director of the  University's Research and
Innovation Sciences, says, "It used to be felt  that seeking
intellectual property protection ran counter to the great  project
of increasing knowledge by sharing it. But with figures like Lane 
and companies like Axis on the scene, a virtuous circle is being
created.  Young scientists are seeing how their research can be
turned into immensely valuable products." 
(Sunday Times (London) 12 Aug 2001)

Circles I understand, but virtue is a pliant concept, evolving
since Plato's Republic, and on through medieval codes of
knighthood. The version advocated here by Ms. Taylor prompts some
A university is an institution that is supposed to provide a stable
environment for the acts of individual academic entrepreneurship we
call scholarship. Universities are clearly slipping in their
financial ability to provide this environment and are led to behave
like corporations. But financial entrepreneurship is an opportunity
available only to select units within the university. Medicine can
do it, engineering and computer science can more modestly, but what
about History or East Asian Studies? Do we get the Medical School
to pay for East Asian Studies, or do we do without them? Wrangles
over status and financial resources, seldom simmering far below the
surface in institutional debates, could turn the ancient dream of
unity of knowledge into an academic Yugoslavia. 
Even within an academic unit the conduct of financial
entrepreneurship is likely to become very individual. We often
speak of the value of 'horizontal' teamwork, but the way prestige
becomes manifest in a university usually leads to the highly
'vertical' teamwork of lead professor, assistant professors, post
docs and graduate students. Within such a structure the attempt to
balance probity in research, equity in academic promotion, and
financial gain can recall the days of feudal kingdoms.
Claims of virtue always call for careful scrutiny.   --PJK

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