In 2009, US universities earned nearly $1.8 million from the commercialisation of inventions by their research staff. What is surprising is that these revenues are not usually taken into account in the faculty promotion process.

As many as 75% of all US universities do not take into account the revenues generated by inventions and patents arising from the research work of their faculty when making faculty tenure appointments or promotions, reveals a report by the National Academy of Inventors. According to Paul Sanberg, Vice President of Research and Innovation at the University of South Florida, who co-authored the study, commercialisation considerations were taken into account for the first time in 2006 by Texas A&M University for the purpose of faculty appraisals. "Somewhat surprisingly, their lead has not been followed, at least publicly, by other major academic institutions," he points out. The universities that do take patenting and commercialisation into account tend to be public institutions which consider US patents a priority. They also usually publish their tenure and promotion guidelines.

Real value for universities...

The study raises a number of good arguments for including faculty member patents and commercialisation activities in the tenure and promotion criteria. Doing so will, for example, "inspire tenure-track professors to engage in innovative activities earlier in their careers. And encouraging the creative, productive and innovative ideas of young professors will increase their universities' research dollars." In turn, more investment in research may lessen pressure to translate research endeavours into useful, applicable and timely solutions to today's global problems. This clearly seems an investment "which is useful for everybody," underlines Paul Sanberg.

...which, however, needs firm control

The authors of the study go further. "The next step in increasing academic patent and commercialisation activities is to ensure that investment also comes from public budgets," they suggest. If research is to make a real impact, it is essential to allocate the proper resources in order to more efficiently transfer scientific knowledge from academics to entrepreneurs. However, Sanberg sounds a warning note about faculty patenting, emphasising that such commercial activities must be kept under control.He concludes: "It’s vital that these activities should not replace faculty’s normal university activities: teaching, student mentoring, and in particular publishing their research."