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Contracts X Conflicts

Nature comments report of the Forum that gathers companies and universities together

Contracts are fundamental tools to settle the tensions that commonly arise in research partnerships involving universities and companies. This, at least, is the conclusion of the report published by the Business and Higher Education Forum of the United States, which gathers together the American Council on Education, an association of 1,800 universities, and the National Business Alliance, which represents the business sector. The finding of the study is that the conflicts of interest generally arise when teachers and universities have a financial stake in the results of research.

According to Hank McKinnell, an executive with Pfizer, one of the main recommendations is to support the collaboration in contracts that cover all the aspects of the enterprise. Many universities and researchers carry out a significant part of the project without the terms of the agreement having been completed.

According to the editorial of the Nature magazine, in its issue 6839, volume 411, dated June 14th, the report is useful when it points out “embarrassing” situations, in which a university is pressed to grant rights over technologies that have originated in academic projects sponsored by third parties, including the federal government. According to the magazine, the report does not, however, mention occasions on which a company puts pressure on a university that can hardly stand the steep legal fees to exploit the ramifications.

The editorial regards as valuable the suggestion to set a time limit of between 60 and 90 days for companies to assess the market potential for a discovery. But it regrets that there is no mention in the report of any recommendation for problems that arise when researchers develop techniques they want to patent, while the company prefers to see this invention widely used.

The report, adds the editorial, says little about drawing up regulations for these collaborations, nor again of public consultations with regard to best practices. “The pressure for ‘good behavior’ is implicit in the conditions of finance laid down by such agencies as the National Health Institutes, but it cannot protect properly the public interest in preserving the fundamental role of the universities.”

The report is welcome for its judicious points of view, Nature reckons. But “it does not establish a structure to stand up to the strong companies that deal with academic collaboration in a predatory manner”, it concludes.