What’s Delaying the Fruits of National R&D Dollars?



In 1980, the United States Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act–also known as the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act–which was intended to help universities and national laboratories bring technology to the marketplace. Thirty years later, and with $30 billion spent annually by the federal government on research and development, “technology transfer” to industry lags behind. Senators Birch Bayh and Bob Dole had hoped to open the floodgates on pent-up entrepreneurial energy in universities and laboratories. The reality, though, looking at the connection between the academy and industry today, is that the gushing waters of innovation appear to be more of a slow trickle.

Why does technology transfer lag so far behind? George Mason University social scientist Edmund J. Zolnik recently surveyed postdocs in the Washington, DC, metropolitan region, and found that the DC-area population represented “one of the most highly skilled
pools of human capital in the world,” in “one of the best
urban areas of the world for generating wealth.” His findings were published in the International Journal of Knowledge-Based Development.

Clearly, if an entrepreneurial bent exists anywhere, it ought to exist there. And yet, in a survey he conducted of 126 individuals, only two–two!–listed entrepreneurial career tracks as their top choice. Over half listed it as their fourth choice.

This was surprising, given that the postdocs seemed to at least have vague notions that technology transfer was important. “We are the bridge between science and society,” wrote one of those surveyed, in a representative comment. Overall, though, Zernik found that postdocs seemed to have a “general lack of awareness” of entrepreneurial career tracks. How to fix the problem? He points to model courses like one taught at the University of Texas at Austin on how to transform research into marketable products, or to “entrepreneurial mentorship programs” offered at business schools, as potential interventions to steer postdocs toward careers of entrepreneurship.

Some people, of course, are beyond intervention: one wrote on Zolnik’s survey, “I don’t give a damn about transferring technology, greedy bastards.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal