Universities are incubators for many of our country’s most popular products, from the HyRed cranberry developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the Honeycrisp apple created at the University of Minnesota. Universities have also created corn hybrids, soybean varieties, medicines for humans and livestock, and countless other inventions.
University research in danger
But colleges and universities across the country fear these research hubs are in jeopardy. Thirty-six members of Congress are trying to weaken the Bayh-Dole Act, a law that has been in place since 1980 and allows universities to patent and license inventions created through federally funded research.
Kevin Walters is the Strategic Research Coordinator at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation at UW-Madison. WARF is the organization responsible for the commercialization of HyRed cranberry and hundreds of other UW-Madison inventions, including the drug warfarin, a commonly used blood thinner for humans. It was developed in the 1940s at UW-Madison and named after WARF.
Walters says weakening the Bayh-Dole law would be disastrous for organizations like WARF in universities across the country, as well as for American consumers.
“University technologies would have a hard time attracting investment from industry if, once research and development has already been carried out, a government agency deemed the end result too expensive and interfered with contractual licensing agreements,” he said. he declares.
According to AUTM, a national organization of technology transfer professionals, nearly 70% of academic inventions are licensed by small companies, many of which rely on venture capital.
Emily Bauer, Director of Licensing at WARF, explains how partnerships between universities, the federal government and a company work when creating new varieties of cranberries.
“Technologies are invented on campus,” says Bauer. “Development is being done by companies that can test much larger than anything we can do on campus. WARF owns the patents. Companies want to make sure that if they invest in a technology, they will be able to develop it. If they are faced with the possibility of the government taking that away from them, they will not take the risk. If companies are concerned that their agreements with us will be weakened or canceled after the fact, they will not work with us.
Joe Allen worked on Senator Birch Bayh’s team in 1980 and helped pass the Bayh-Dole Act.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. Forty years later, Allen works as a consultant and heads the Bayh-Dole Coalition.
“I work to explain to people what the Bayh-Dole law is,” Allen says. “We want this to continue to work as it was written. There are people who try to undermine it. We try to keep the flame pure.
Allen explains that before 1980, universities could not own most of the discoveries resulting from their research.
“The government claimed patent rights for all federally funded research, regardless of whether the federal employees were the ones doing the research or whether the federal grants funded only a small percentage of the work,” Allen said. .
As a result, inventions ripe for commercialization remained on the shelves.
“The federal government did not have the know-how and the capacity to turn research conducted by scientists into real-world products. Of the 28,000 patents held by these agencies, only 5% have been licensed to the private sector, ”he explains.
Common sense solution
Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., And Bob Dole, R-Kan., Realized that politics had to change and persuaded their colleagues to adopt reform, Allen says. President Jimmy Carter signed their namesake bill a month before stepping down.
“The Bayh-Dole solution was simple,” says Allen. “The law requires universities and nonprofit organizations to make good faith efforts to commercialize research funded by federal grants. In return, research institutes could keep the patents, providing a strong incentive to license them to a private sector company that could realize the full value of their inventions. The Bayh-Dole Law laid the foundation for 40 years of technological innovation, job creation and improved quality of life.
Allen says there is a lot of interest in the Bayh-Dole model in other countries. “A lot of countries want to adopt this model.
Allen says the United States and the world are lucky that the Bayh-Dole law was in place in 2020 when the pandemic struck.
“Thanks to Bayh-Dole, we have vaccines that work,” says Allen. “The vaccines were made possible by federally funded research. We have developed effective vaccines in months rather than years thanks to unprecedented cooperation between universities, the federal government and industry. Without Bayh-Dole, this would not have happened. A year ago we were all praying for someone to develop a vaccine. It was done in record time and is literally saving the world. “
Those who want to weaken the Bayh-Dole law argue that drug prices are too high and that a weakening of the Bayh-Dole law would lower them. They believe that if a product is made from a federally funded invention and someone complains that the product is too expensive, the government should allow copy companies to make it.
“We don’t want the drugs to be expensive, but we have no control over it,” Walters says. “Pharmaceutical companies control the prices of drugs. If the product is difficult and expensive for the consumer to buy, it is probably expensive to manufacture.
The decision is imminent
Allen says a settlement is pending to ensure Bayh-Dole will continue to be implemented as written, but opponents urge the Biden administration to undermine it. The decision will be taken shortly. “Opponents cannot amend the law in Congress, so they want to change the way it is implemented,” Allen says. “They want us to go back more than 40 years.
“President Biden supported Bayh-Dole 40 years ago when he was in the Senate. The Biden administration is under heavy pressure to abuse Bayh-Dole. We did this experiment – it just doesn’t work. If they weaken the way the law is enforced, I think the system will collapse. If that happens, we had better pray that we never have another pandemic, as our system of research alliances between the public and private sectors will be in ruins. Hopefully the administration won’t let this happen.