MPs’ report on TT: mostly practical, sensible advice

The House of Commons of the UK Parliament has a Science and Technology Committee. The committee has today released its report (HC755) on its Inquiry into Managing Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer. Disclosure: IP Draughts was one of 19 witnesses who gave oral evidence to the inquiry, and he gets a brief mention in the report, more on which below.

The terms of reference of the inquiry explained that it was taking place in light of two recent developments:

Dame Ann Dowling’s July 2015 Review of Business-University Research Collaborations commented that in universities “there is a tension between the desire to earn short-term income from their Intellectual Property and the need to deliver wider public benefit, and potentially greater long-term return on investment from this IP. The emphasis needs to shift towards the latter, and this must be reflected in Technology Transfer Office funding models and success metrics. … This area remains a major source of frustration for both academics and businesses.”

Our recent hearing on Graphene included discussion about the role of universities in the commercialisation of their research work. We now invite written evidence on how well this system works and what measures are needed to improve it.

The inquiry ranged across a number of aspects of university technology transfer (TT) and the commercialisation of IP. The final report of the committee focused on three areas:

  • how business demand for technology transfer might be increased
  • the geographical context of technology transfer [is it nearly all done in the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford, London and Cambridge, and should it be encouraged in other places]
  • funding and support for technology transfer

Golden triangle. A=Oxford, B=Cambridge, C=London, X = Milton Keynes?

The report summarises the range of views that it heard when taking evidence on these topics and draws some sensible conclusions and advice for government. The main points that IP Draughts takes from the report are:

  1. Let’s move on to implementation. We’ve had enough national reviews of intellectual property and technology transfer (“at least 12 …over the last 15 years”). It’s time for the government to take action in several areas, outlined in the report. [Hoorah! IP Draughts and his colleagues on the Law Society’s IP Law Committee have spent hundreds of hours over the last 15 years submitting evidence to some of those reviews, including Gowers and Hargreaves, and have been disappointed by the quality of some of their conclusions.]
  2. Don’t scapegoat the TT offices. Dame Ann Dowling’s review expressed the frustration felt by some companies and academics about the process of negotiating IP issues with universities. The suggestion appeared to be that TT offices were the cause of this frustration. The present report gives a much more balanced picture, pointing out that some of the perceived difficulties may be down to (a) a lack of understanding of the complex issues involved, (b) the problems of valuing early stage technologies, and (c) the different interests of the parties. The report provides some welcome support for TT offices (“…situated in the middle of complex IP negotiations, balancing competing priorities, with varying degrees of support.”) [Hoorah! It is too easy to blame the TT office, which often has insufficient support from the university’s senior management, leaving other participants – whose interests differ from the university – with an easy target for cries of causing “difficulties”.]
  3. Focus on improving take-up by UK industry. Universities are good at generating technology; UK industry has a poor record of making use of it. Rather than continually focus on making universities better at serving UK industry, focus on improving the environment for industry to make use of university research and innovation. [Hoorah! Viewed globally, UK universities have a more impressive reputation than UK industry. Government policy should focus on the areas mentioned in the report, including tax policy on R&D credits, VAT and investment in technology.]

Some other recommendations in the report didn’t resonate with IP Draughts. Databases of university technology are unlikely to be of much use. Getting government agencies to look into training TT offices sounds like a bureaucratic solution. Encouraging regional specialisation in research and TT sounds like another top-down, dirigiste waste of time and money.

Overall, IP Draughts welcomes the report’s conclusions and the committee’s encouragement to government to implement TT-friendly policies.

And how could he not, when he is quoted at paragraph 69 (on the subject of whether TT offices cause problems in negotiations over IP):

Other witnesses suggested that the very nature of negotiations, together with the challenges posed by valuing new, early-stage technologies, can mean that a degree of delay and difficulty is unavoidable. As [IP Draughts] explained, “it is a negotiation: inevitably, there are going to be difficulties sometimes”.

Hardly an earth-shattering observation, but one that needed to be made in light of Dame Ann Dowling’s unbalanced conclusions on this issue.

3 Comments

Filed under Intellectual Property, Legal policy, universities

3 responses to “MPs’ report on TT: mostly practical, sensible advice

  1. When I think of TT offices, I’m reminded of the description of Planet Earth given in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “mostly harmless”.

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