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House committee investigates ILP, part 2

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(By Andrew L. Fish)

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A congressional subcommittee is investigating the practices of MIT's Industrial Liaison Program as part of a review of technology transfers of federally-funded research to private industry.

The inquiry is being conducted by the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Affairs, chaired by Rep. Theodore S. Weiss (D-NY). The subcommittee has scheduled hearings on the subject for June 13.

For the past several months the subcommittee has studied the practices of several hospitals and universities to evaluate the risks and benefits of public/private partnerships, a congressional staff member said. Among other items, the committee is interested in methods for minimizing financial conflict of interest.

The subcommittee is focusing on the ILP because "MIT has been very visible on these kinds of issues, and MIT gets lots of federal grants," the staff member said.

Thomas R. Moebus, the associate director of the ILP and the liaison with the subcommittee, was unavailable for comment Friday.

The ILP's mission is "to create and strengthen mutually beneficial partnerships between MIT and other corporations," according to a 1987 mission statement. "Through the program, technological developments made at MIT are transferred to industry for commercial application, helping to link work at the Institute to the solution of societal problems," according to the MIT Bulletin.

But programs like the ILP have come under fire in some quarters for creating improper integration between universities and industry and encouraging the sale of scientific research. David F. Noble, a former MIT professor who is currently suing MIT for denying him tenure, complained in the April issue of Zeta magazine that in some cases university officials sit on the boards of ILP member corporations, making them both the "purveyors and the purchasers of the publicly-created, privately controlled research resource."

In a telephone interview, Noble, who has studied the relationship between universities and industry for 15 years, said the current system leaves "a lot of room for abuse of the public interest." Because there is no oversight of activities like the ILP, universities are "free to make deals in secret with no disclosure." Noble expressed concern that researchers or administrators could have a conflict of interest if they had a financial stake in the performance of ILP member corporations.

Technology transfer essential

to improve competitiveness

But officials at MIT and elsewhere have argued that technology transfer programs like the ILP are needed to improve the productivity and competitiveness of American industry. In 1985 congressional testimony quoted by Noble, MIT President Paul E. Gray '54 said that universities had a responsibility to quickly commercialize their research in order to improve US competitiveness. Similarly, journalist David Osborne wrote in his 1988 book Laboratories of Democracy that building "bridges between universities and local firms, so as to encourage the rapid commercialization of research ... is precisely the right focus, for the commercialization of research is the weak link in our economy."

But Noble notes that many ILP members are Japanese firms (57 as of September 1988). Rather than providing a competitive edge to American industry, Noble contends, the ILP helps foreign competition. For example, BusinessWeek reported that the Japanese NEC Corporation chairman "credits access to MIT research for much of NEC's success in computing."

Noble also expressed concern about the sale of intellectual university property to private industry. "The program is designed to serve neither the needs of the scientific community nor the end of public enlightenment; it is a closed consortium of corporate clients whose sole purpose is to secure exclusive control over ... intellectual capital," he said.

The subcommittee staff member said the hearing would be openminded about the costs and benefits of programs like the ILP. The subcommittee is simply trying to determine "what taxpayers can expect from publicly funded research."