Report Examines Impacts of University-Industry Relationships (“UIRs”) on Academic Research in Agricultural Biotechnology


Washington, D.C. - 11/18/2003 - More must be done to understand how academic researchers involved in agricultural biotechnology are impacted by a growing number of relationships with industry partners, concluded a new report released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and Portland State University.

The report, University-Industry Relationships: Framing the Issues for Academic Research in Agricultural Biotechnology looks at the advantages and disadvantages to u niversities and academic scientists who engage in relationships with industry. It specifically outlines the need for information regarding influences on academic scientists’ research agendas, the intellectual property rights and technology innovations involved in the relationships, as well as the unique role universities have in developing valuable technologies with little commercial promise. Authored by professor David Ervin at Portland State University with contributions by other researchers, the report is based on a workshop funded by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and research conducted under a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The report identifies three themes the authors think researchers should use to guide further investigations on the topic:

  • A better baseline should be developed so that all interested parties (e.g. consumers, government officials, university and industry officials) can understand the range and scope of UIRs in agr icultural biotechnology. Without such a baseline, it will remain difficult for all parties to measure the influence UIRs have on agricultural biotechnology.
  • Effects on academic scientists’ research agendas should be examined. UIRs bring new resources and opportunities into university research programs but also pose risks, such as hampered pursuit of knowledge and decreased communication between scholars about research findings. Both the opportunities and the risks need to be examined and evaluated.
  • Intellectual property and technology transfer issues are controversial and questions remain whether UIR policies promote or hinder research and technology innovation. Although studies have found that firms whose scientists collaborate with university scientists tend to earn more patents and that academic researchers who participate in UIRs tend to patent more frequently than their peers, the lure of licensing revenues could reduce public access to innovations produced through UIRs.
"As university-industry relationships have become an increasingly important source of innovation and research for agricultural biotechnology, it’s important to examine not only whether they are delivering the economic benefits predicted by policymakers, but also to understand the broader impact they’re having on university research and agricultural biotechnology," noted Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, "We decided to help fund this conference because we wanted to ‘jump start’ public discussion on the topic and we are very pleased the resulting report provides a framework for future discussions about the opportunities and risks presented by UIRs."

In recent years, companies have entered into numerous agreements with public and private universities, providing financial support in return for a range of research and testing services. Some believe that the new agreements encourage innovation and early application of new techno logies that benefit the agricultural sector and consumers. Others raise a variety of concerns, including whether the focus on developing commercial applications has diverted resources and efforts away from research and technology development that may have significant public benefits but with little potential to garner commercial returns. Despite the assertions pro and con, the issues surrounding university-industry relationships in agricultural biotechnology are not sharply defined and new research is needed to document them, to understand the motivations driving their formation, and to analyze their implications.

"The historic roles of universities, industry and government in shaping U.S. agricultural research and technology development appear to be significantly changing. However, little information exists to understand how the changes are influencing agricultural biotechnology, and the implications for consumers, farmers, industry, and the environment," said David Ervin, pr ofessor of Environmental Studies at Portland State University. "The firms and universities may be well informed about their individual relationships, but general society is largely flying blind through what may be a profound change in our agricultural research system and the future of agriculture."

The report draws primarily on the findings of a workshop held November 19-20, 2002 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The workshop brought together experts with varied perspectives and experiences with university-industry partnerships, including academic scientists, university administrators and technology transfer officers, representatives from industry and public interest organizations, and government officials. The conference and the report are some of the initial efforts of a team of researchers funded by the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CREES) at USDA to investigate UIRs, public goods and the potential impact on agricultural biotechnology.

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.

This material is based upon work supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 2001-52100-11217. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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