18.5.06

APPROPRIABILITY. Inventions, particularly elementary inventions such as the simple machines, basic antibiotics, and computing machines, have the public good properties of nonrivalrousness (once the idea exists, one person's use of it does not prevent another person from also using it) and nonexclusivity (anyone who is aware of the idea is able to apply it.) Patents and copyrights exist to protect inventions by giving the patent or copyright holder ownership rights that turn unauthorized rival use of the idea into theft. Patents and copyrights have great commercial value, and holders of those rights under some conditions can manipulate rights in such a way as to lessen competition. (I'm simplifying radically here; the litigation, let alone the economic theory, of defensive patenting is very messy and I'm not current with all the recent developments.)

Institutions of higher education have been ambivalent about using patents and copyrights as revenue sources, the University of Wisconsin's rat poison and Stanford's gene splicing notwithstanding. But with the continued appeal of "industrial policy" and "public-private partnerships," the diminishing returns to many areas of pure research, and governments looking to save money comes the temptation for the academy to support its laboratories with corporate-sponsored research. Jennifer Washburn's University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education asserts in its title what comes next. I note in this Book Review No. 13 that Ms. Washburn attempts to connect a few too many dots. Higher education has problems, but to attempt to bundle all of them with the pursuit of corporate research dollars is to stretch.

That corporate sponsorship of research brings in its train corporate efforts to appropriate the benefits of that research in preference to its rapid publication and the attendant replication, refinement, and rivet-counting under the rubric of "A Comment On" I do not dispute. That U.S. antitrust policy might preclude the development of corporate joint ventures that could collaboratively fund university research and pool the patents in such a way that no one firm strategically manipulates the discovery Ms. Washburn does not address, although she considers some modifications of existing technology-transfer policies.

That university administrators are as prone as managers anywhere to get caught up in fads, in Ms. Washburn's work, the pursuit of the next Silicon Valley (what happened to those "Illinois Research and Technology Corridor" signs along the Tollway, and the talk of Silicon Prairie?) I do not dispute.

That the pursuit of industry partnerships contributes to the marginalization of the social sciences and humanities and the adjunctification of teaching I question. Trendy yet tendentious curricula and "culturally competent" graduates who could argue that E=mc2 is "gendered" yet are unable to integrate ln x or grasp thermodynamics are the more likely cause of those disciplines' troubles. And to the best of my knowledge, Corporate America's research contracts do not come bundled with stadium skyboxes, climbing walls, wireless internet access in the classrooms, or Jacuzzis in the residences (don't say dorms.)

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