University-Industry Collaborations: The Consequences of Selling Your Soul

Next Wave asked Thomas Callarman, director of the Institute for Manufacturing Enterprise Systems and former associate dean of graduate studies at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe to review the case of Susan and Dr. Centrifuge. Callarman is involved with technology transfer policies at ASU, and as a business professor he tends to believe that faculty and universities "sell their souls" when they do contract research.

What should Susan do?

Situations like those facing Susan are becoming more frequent as public funding of university research declines and businesses increase their investment in sponsored research. Questions of who "owns" the intellectual property in sponsored research is an increasingly difficult (and interesting) question.

Susan has several different obligations in this situation. She has legal, moral, and ethical obligations to Dr. Centrifuge, the university, BigPharmaCo, her chosen profession, and the world at large. The first thing that Susan should do is to establish her legal obligations. If the company and the university, through Dr. Centrifuge, have a Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA), it may be a violation of that contract for her to go public with the data without permission from BigPharmaCo. Dr. Centrifuge, as recipient of the research funding, also has a stake in such a decision. Conversely, if BigPharmaCo went public suggesting the data proves that the drug improves intelligence, then Dr. Centrifuge and Susan may have the legal responsibility to go public with the actual data.

The moral and ethical obligations are less clear but related to the legal points raised above. Should the company make false statements about the results of the research, Susan and Dr. Centrifuge have a moral and ethical obligation to go public with the actual data as well.

Absent an NDA, Susan has no legal obligation to refrain from using the data. But since the research was done under the direction of Dr. Centrifuge, it would be his responsibility to approve the use of the data. If the data are the only data she collected for her thesis, and are necessary for the completion of her degree, then she can write the thesis and either keep the data and the thesis private, or she can disguise the data so that it cannot be tied to BigPharmaCo. As more companies sponsor research, increasing numbers of universities permit such practices.

And what about Dr. Centrifuge?

Dr. Centrifuge has similar obligations to those of Susan, but he is really the person most responsible for making decisions about the use of the data. His obligations are, however, more complex. As an employee of the university, Centrifuge is obligated to comply with the policies of the university. While academic freedom permits faculty members to study any area they wish, they still have a responsibility to follow university policies or face disciplinary and/or legal action.

As a faculty mentor, Centrifuge has a responsibility to guide Susan in her decision. If her thesis and degree rely on the use of these data, and Susan was counting on their use, then Centrifuge has the obligation to find ways to help her finish her thesis and degree.

As a grantee, Centrifuge is under the same legal, moral, and ethical considerations as is Susan. If an NDA was negotiated, Centrifuge had an obligation to inform those supported by BigPharmaCo of any restrictions and obligations connected to the research. These restrictions govern his obligations to BigPharmaCo and the university. If control has been relinquished to BigPharmaCo, Centrifuge places himself and the university in a legal quandary if the data are released for any purpose. If there is no NDA, the grantee is only legally obligated to follow university policies.

As a member of the scientific community, Dr. Centrifuge has the responsibility to discover and disseminate new knowledge. If the results from this research will have an impact on the state of knowledge, and will impact future research, Centrifuge has a responsibility to make the knowledge public.

But doesn't the university also have a role to play?

The university must have intellectual property policies in place to guide and protect faculty members, graduate students, postdocs, and companies wishing to sponsor research. Because the research is done at the university, institutional funds have been used, and therefore the university has fiduciary rights and responsibilities. It is unacceptable, however, for the university to impose its will on Centrifuge and Susan, after the fact. In fact, the university also has the responsibility to support Centrifuge and Susan in any decisions that they make, as long as university policy is, and has been, followed.

In closing, this could have been avoided (theoretically) with good university policies regarding intellectual property and an agreement among the university, Centrifuge, and BigPharmaCo when the research contract was first developed. Generally, anyone who contributes to the research, in any way, is bound by the contractual agreement and should be required to sign the agreement. Students should take an active role to determine their responsibilities when research is sponsored. Ignorance is no defense.

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