Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Study: faculty not motivated by financial incentives, so conduct outreach accordingly


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: September 16th, 2020

A detailed article on research into the motivators of faculty involvement in commercialization activity appears in the September issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, click here.

It’s been 40 years since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, and tech transfer professionals have spent a lot of that time trying to get faculty researchers to buy into a philosophical shift toward thinking about their innovations as having commercial value. It’s still not uncommon for “old guard” faculty to resist any suggestion that they should embrace the tech transfer ethos. Thankfully for TTOs the shift away from commercialization as a dirty word has gradually occurred, due in no small part to TTO outreach efforts.

A new research paper on the motivations of faculty innovators hopes to continue that trend by delving into what drives researchers to commercialize their work. The authors of the paper, “Not in the Job Description: The Commercial Activities of Academic Scientists and Engineers,” hope their analysis will help policymakers, funders, and TTOs to formulate better incentives for academic researchers to engage in commercial activities. The paper was published in Management Science in June. (E-News readers can access it here.)

“Very often, policymakers and funders assume that academics engage in commercial activities because they want to get money because that’s what we think commercial activity does,” says Henry Sauermann, one of the paper’s three authors. “But I think we completely forgot the fact that people might also want to have a broader impact, which commercialization can allow them to have. Funding agencies always say, ‘yes, we want to see broader impacts.’ But when we think about what academics want, people assume that they don’t care that much about it and assume they care about financial benefits and careers, which is not the whole story.”

In fact, the study found that differences in monetary rewards associated with licensing had no relationship with patenting in any field — a fact that should help inform how faculty outreach is planned and executed.

The authors used patent application counts as a proxy for commercial activities, using five years of NSF survey data of nearly 2,100 research-focused academics over a five-year period, working at 160 different institutions. The data was augmented by information on universities’ faculty licensing income sharing policies, TTO formation date, and data indicative of the quality of the respondents’ academic departments.

The authors also reviewed the prior literature on faculty motivations, which primarily argues that researchers are motivated by rewards of self-interest, such as money. But they also found that prior studies do not address social impact as a motive. As they state in the paper, “this is surprising… because social benefits are invoked to justify the public funding of academic research as well as policy efforts that promote academic entrepreneurship.”

As for differences in commercialization among different fields, the authors found that engineers have the highest average count of patent applications, followed by life scientists and physical scientists. But they found no significant differences among the different fields in the reported importance of salary, intellectual challenge, or opportunity for career advancement. Licensing incentives had no relationship with patenting in any field.

The insignificance of financial incentives in predicting patenting surprised the authors, because it contradicts the public perception that academic researches get large payoffs from their patented innovations. The authors posit a reason for that may be the fact that, with rare exceptions, the payoff from patents is meager. Even in cases where 30% of licensing income could be significant, Sauermann notes, some researchers simply don’t care about the money.

Other potential financial motivators were not captured in the paper, such as patenting as a means to acquire more resources for research. “I have known a number of faculty members who say, ‘I want you to take my personal share and put it in my lab account,’” observes Gregory Gallo, director of technology transfer at the University of Connecticut. “If faculty feel that that engagement with a company can then allow them to access dollars that they might not otherwise be able to access, then they’ll be much more inclined to engage.”

Patrick Reynolds, assistant director of faculty & start-up services in the TTO at Emory University, reports that in his experience at the university, interest in personal economic return from commercialization is not a big motivator. “I think faculty quite often are thinking about their exciting results leading to a product. But I don’t feel that their main interest in working with TTOs is because they think it will make them rich.”

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Posted under: Tech Transfer e-News

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