University Technology Transfer and Unintended Consequences

In the social sciences, unintended consequences (sometimes unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences) are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action. The concept has long existed but was named and popularised in the 20th century by American sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Unintended consequences, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In popular discourse, people often refer to “the law of unintended consequences” when debating the merits or shortcomings of a particular decision, or course of action.  Like any sufficiently interesting and yet complicated subject, it can be difficult to fully grasp what is really at the heart of such references.  It recently struck me that this is, in part, at the center of the many debates on the proper role of the university in commercialization of scientific research.  The initial inspiration for this post comes from a blog posting by Gerald Barnett (Research Enterprise, Oh, to be the happy dog again–side note, I try to read Gerry’s blog as often as possible and recommend it highly). In my experience the technology transfer office may be trying to accomplish goals that are not clearly defined or, as highlighted by this posting, are actually in conflict with some of the other goals of both the university administration and the faculty researchers.

It is all too easy to get swept up into the rhetoric on how the Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to “benefit” financially by licensing patents arising from federally sponsored research. From that basic premise arises a series of decisions and actions with consequences, both intentional and unintentional.  As the Wikipedia article summarizes the concept, unintended consequences can be roughly grouped into three types:

  • A positive, unexpected benefit (usually referred to as luck, serendipity or a windfall).
  • A negative, unexpected detriment occurring in addition to the desired effect of the policy (e.g., while irrigation schemes provide people with water for agriculture, they can increase waterborne diseases that have devastating health effects, such as schistosomiasis).
  • A perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution makes a problem worse), such as when a policy has a perverse incentive that causes actions opposite to what was intended.

Note, this summary presupposes that not all “unintended consequences” are negative.  However, these tend to be the consequences that are eventually cited as unintended—nearly every positive outcome of a particular decision or action has someone claiming it as his or her own particular intention. Unfortunately, many perceive this as a challenge to make “better” choices, and so to avoid the negative consequences.

Thus, the technology transfer offices confidently point to “success stories” from the cannon of technology transfer gospel as a model for their particular University to embrace—whether that is actually a viable alternative or not.  Various University officials or administrators then look to the tech transfer “operation” as a source of alternative income, one that is desperately needed, and begin to expect ever-improving “metrics” in terms of licensing performance.  If your office realized licensing income of $10M last year, what are the projections for the following year?  What is the projection for next year, and the years after that? Why was there a drop of $2M this year versus the prior year?

If the technology transfer office produces alternative metrics—numbers of licenses, startups founded, patent applications filed, or issued patents—they are likewise put on a track to reproduce or improve those metrics year after year.  Often, these become a level of baseline performance for a university versus the performance of “peer institutions” or “aspirational” peers.  If your office can’t easily produce the metrics (and some of these are “easy” to produce, such as number of invention disclosures) what then? This can lead to an implied commitment to invest in the metrics—it’s important to remember that these decisions and actions are done at some cost.  This might include an annual patent budget, aimed at filing a respectable number of patent applications each year. After all, so the argument goes, you can’t expect home runs if you don’t get a nice number of “at bats” or base hits.  If you can produce enough cash, then you can produce patent applications, even issued patents. Funding a technology transfer office with a director, along with some support staff and maybe a couple of technology licensing managers, can represent a sizeable commitment of “overhead” funding.

This is when the tail might begin to wag the dog, and you learn, as Gerry points out, this doesn’t mean a happy dog.  A lot of investment and effort is being put into producing a pot of gold at the end of the research rainbow, which means dealing with troublesome leprechauns and associated tricky business.  Meanwhile everyone is still expecting those “smiles and fluffiness and public purpose, stardust and unicorns and glitter“ as it is nicely summed up in the original blog posting.  While I’ve pointed out the limitations of analogies in a earlier posting (here) this does get a couple of points across! You’ve got to remember, not every fairy tale has a happy ending, and there is always at least one character that is on the losing side.  This means someone gets stuck with the role of evil stepmother or nasty fire-breathing dragon.

It’s easy to keep with the script, stick with the stock characters and plots, rather than trying to put together a unique story. But this gets us back to that “law” of unintended consequences.  For all practical purposes, it’s impossible that positive consequences will be presented as “unintentional” and so there are no orphans in that part of the fairy tale. As for the rest, you might get some grudging acknowledgement of partial responsibility for negative twists in the story, but mostly you get rationalizations from the parties involved.  I like to think that we can work out some new plots for technology transfer tales, and maybe even endings with a few happy dogs.  You may still have a lot of those unintended consequences of course, but hopefully the “intended” consequences will make those worthwhile.