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Science Policy: Lauds and Caveats

By The CRIMSON Staff

We are pleased with the Corporation's May decision, uncovered two weeks ago, to allow the University to accept equity in start-up companies who themselves make profits by exploiting research performed at Harvard. When our discoveries benefit society, we are pleased to share this knowledge. Yet in a society that puts a high price tag on precious information, that we should be able to own the fruits of out labor is self-evident. Considerations remain, however, as to the type of fruit which is to be planted in our laboratories; how the university orchard is to be distributed for purposes of experimentation; and who exactly benefits from this scientific agriculture.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that a human-made microorganism qualified as patentable matter. The same year, Congress passed the Patent and Trademark Amendment Act, allowing universities to receive patents directly; to license patent rights; and to collect royalties on inventions from federally-funded research without seeking waivers from federal agencies.

Our substantive interest in the results of our research was enlarged by possibility of financial gain. Until this year, Harvard engaged in an extensive series of licensing agreements with independent companies. These firms proceeded to produce and distribute drugs and biotechnology products through a profit-sharing agreement with us. Now the University, with the consultation of Deans or their designees, may accept shares of such firms, with this ownership opening possibilities of huge increases of capital income.

The change of policy should be lauded for two reasons. First, it is good to have a vested interest in these companies so that we maximize the monetary proceeds from our research. Second, Harvard already invests our substantial endowment in outside ventures through the Harvard Management Company, and its investments in private ventures through Harvard Private Capital Group, Inc. We shouldn't pretend that we are above the capitalist economy of which we are prime beneficiaries; we should attempt to get in on the ground floor of companies when we have the opportunity.

That said, there are substantial areas in need of oversight so that the University's search for truth doesn't metamorphose into the Administration's search for money. Leverett Professor Jerry R. Green's Science Policy Committee issued a report this September urging the "separation of investment decisions from academic management," but this report has been largely overlooked by an indifferent corporation. In order to prevent the venalities of the business world from breaking through the Ivy wall, it is necessary to establish a clear precedent that it is academic priorities that lead to investment opportunities and not vice versa. The current director of the University's Office for Technology and Trademark Licensing. Joyce M. Brinton, said last week that the conflict-of-interest issue hadn't been considered by policy makers when they decided the equity issue. To provide said ethical oversight, a competent administrator might be found who is aware of the dire implications of reversing the research-investment process.

These considerations include the use of University facilities. The laboratories should be used to further the research of professors, not corporations. We would like to assume that the former have societal interests in mind, while the latter, by their very nature, are primarily concerned with profit. Professors must be free to pursue any of their ideas, especially if those projects are removed from possibility of financial gain. But it is important to ensure that the interests of the professors remain uncorrupted by the interests of companies they found, on whose board they serve or whose stock they own. Full disclosure of financial investments by faculty member who use Harvard's resources is a necessary prerequisite for those investments. Deans must keep a careful eye on the derivations of the research conducted in Harvard's schools.

Another point of concern is the time a professor must dedicate to his or her research. If a faculty member or University representative sits on the board of a company, he or she is obligated to that organization--a tie to commercial society which might cause a direct conflict of interest with his or her obligations to the University. To whom will he or she dedicate his or her time--students, professors or CEOs' The University must monitor closely to ensure that research interests remain pure and that "no more than 20 percent of one's total professional effort [during the academic year] may be directed to outside work," as Faculty of Arts and Sciences regulations state.

We hope that any profit resulting from research conducted in Harvard laboratories benefits the University as a whole. If the Medical School is capitalizing upon its findings, shouldn't it share profits with the College around which the University denters? The researcher must also be accounted for in the profit-sharing resulting from equity interests obtained by virtue of his or her work. The current guidelines that determine monetary distribution in licensing fees should be applied to the new arrangements. On the whole, it appears that the University will benefit substantially from the harvesting of knowledge in this information age. It has taken a great while for the fruits of our labor to mature. Now that knowledge is valued by commercial society as much as it is by the intellectual sphere, we shouldn't stop ourselves from benefitting financially in order to further our educational ends. However, we must make certain that Harvard's research facilities exist to further truth, not profits. The University must ensure that our principal interests lie with veritas.

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