Subcommittee targets ILP's foreign dealings
By Irene C. Kuo
A congressional subcommittee singled out MIT's Industrial Liaison Program as one technology transfer program that is selling the results of federally financed research to foreign firms.
At a hearing on June 13, Rep. Theodore S. Weiss (D-NY), chairman of the Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations subcommittee, acknowledged that the program is open to both US and foreign companies, but said that foreign, particularly Japanese, firms are its biggest users.
MIT President Paul E. Gray '54 defended foreign participation in programs like the ILP, one of the first attempts by a university to link research and commercial applications, as crucial to education and research at American universities eager to learn about foreign research and corporate practices.
Both men's remarks arose amidst an ongoing investigation by the Weiss subcommittee of universities, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation for possible improper integration between universities and industry and for encouragement of the sale of scientific research. Officials at MIT and other universities have argued that technology transfer programs like the ILP are needed to improve the productivity and competitiveness of American industry.
ILP Associate Director Thomas R. Moebus '69 said the invitation Gray received from the subcommittee stated that only faculty equity holdings and potential financial conflict of interest in connection with technology transfer programs would be discussed at the hearing.
"Instead, they focused on the ILP and relations with foreign companies, and faculty equity holdings, both of which they did not indicate in their letter to Gray," Moebus declared.
Moebus added that before the hearing, an MIT faculty member had asked Weiss' staff whether foreign participation in the ILP would be discussed and had been assured that the topic would not be brought up.
Committee's interest "misplaced"
Gray said that Weiss' assessment of high foreign participation in the ILP, the largest of its kind in the nation, was flawed because American companies that do not belong to the program are free to contact MIT faculty members about their research.
"We feel that the congressman's interest was somewhat misplaced," Moebus concurred. "The questions [the committee] asked Gray betray a lack of understanding of how relations [in technology transfer programs] work."
Gray argued that the results of all MIT research are in the public domain. "The ILP does not provide exclusive access, privileged access or private access to those results," he said. "It does provide facilitated access."
The 287 corporations participating in the program include 170 US and 57 Japanese firms. Each pays between $10,000 and over $100,000 a year for access to MIT research in their areas of interest. Company executives may visit MIT, and participating faculty members may visit company offices. Executives may also receive copies of research published by MIT faculty members and "preprints," copies of papers that have not yet been published.
Faculty participation is voluntary, but those who join receive points, worth $35 each, for the work they do. A phone conversation with a company representative, for example, is worth 2 points. The points may be redeemed for office furniture, computer equipment, or professional travel. The average amount received by faculty members participating in the program last year was $665; the average among the 100 faculty members with the highest point totals was $3600.
Weiss said that ILP records show that of 25 MIT faculty members who received more than $1 million in federal grants in recent years, 80 percent "had more contacts with foreign corporations than American ones." Weiss recalled that Gray had repeatedly called both for greater federal funding of research and for stronger business-university ties as ways to help US competitiveness, and he maintained that the establishment of an ILP office in Tokyo proved that the program was working against that goal.
"Are you at all concerned that American taxpayers are paying for research whose results are being sold to (Japanese) industries that will not necessarily benefit the American public?" Weiss asked Gray.
Gray responded that he was not, and said the Tokyo office had been set up not to solicit Japanese firms, but for the convenience of MIT faculty members visiting Japanese members.
"If your concern is the extent to which federally funded research is exploited by other countries, you shouldn't focus on ILP or programs like it at other universities," Gray told the subcommittee. "You'd have to change the whole context in which university research and graduate education take place and put it under wraps."
Desirable lack of restrictions
on technology transfer?
At the hearing, the director of the NSF said the exchange of information between Japan and the United States is "50 to 1 in favor of the Japanese," but did not criticize the ILP. He said universities have no choice but to put research results in the public domain.
Moreover, university researchers maintained that limiting the spread of information to Japan out of fear of economic competition from the Japanese would be impractical.
"When you start talking about `techno-nationalism,' you can't talk only about limiting information flow to Japan," said James H. Raphael, director of research on Japan at Stanford University's Northeast Asia-US Forum on International Policy. "There's always third parties to pass it along. It's a pretty leaky membrane."
"The future is so intertwined we can't take a nationalistic perspective on these sorts of things," he added.
Echoing sentiments that American companies have been slow to fund research and send their best technical people to universities to study for an academic year, Raphael said the question remains, "How can we do a better job of taking our basic research in this country and getting American companies to take advantage of it and commercialize it?"
MIT lawyers react to "ambush"
Gray said after the hearing that he had been "ambushed." The presence of former MIT faculty member David F. Noble, who is suing both the school and Gray because he was denied tenure in the Program in Science, Technology and Society, among the witnesses at the hearing particularly unnerved school officials.
After the hearing, MIT lawyers publicly objected to the subcommittee's reluctance to release the names of the people who were scheduled to testify.
In a letter to Weiss, attorney Robert E. Sullivan of the firm of Palmer & Dodge, which represents MIT in pending litigation initiated by Noble, wrote that Diana Zuckerman, the subcommittee staff person identified as having responsibility for the hearing, had repeatedly demurred from releasing such a list. As late as the day before the hearing, Zuckerman had promised to telecopy to MIT a witness list that was "in the typewriter."
Subcommittee members and witnesses at last week's hearing were disturbed about the conflicts of interest that might arise if researchers and administrators had a financial stake in the performance of ILP member corporations.