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Washington hearing focuses on foreign research access

Research reciprocity between US universities and foreign corporations may be the "only realistic policy" for the open academic requirements of American universities, according to the chair of a Congressional subcommittee.

Cong. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Science of the House Committee on Science Space and Technology, held a hearing last Thursday (Oct. 28) on "Access by Foreign Companies to US Universities." MIT Provost Mark S. Wrighton and representatives of the University of Michigan, the University of Florida, an American corporation and a foreign corporation testified.

The question of foreign corporate access to research at US universities is complicated, as is a reciprocity policy, since each nation organizes its research and development enterprise differently, Rep. Boucher said in a statement to members of the subcommittee prior to the hearing.

Describing the complexity of the issue, Rep. Boucher said, "The definition of what is a US company is not obvious. A company chartered in the United States might perform most of its design and manufacturing activities abroad. On the other hand, a foreign chartered company might employ large numbers of US high-skilled researchers, designers and engineers, as well as have substantial US manufacturing facilities and large numbers of US stockholders. Should the latter company be excluded from access to publicly funded academic research?"

Rep. Boucher also noted "Leading-edge research that may contribute to technology breakthroughs is now being conducted in many countries. In order for US industry to remain competitive over the long term, it is important for American scientists and engineers to have access to foreign research results.

"Such access is unlikely to remain available if fences are built around US universities. Moreover, modern communications, including international conferences focusing on science and technology breakthroughs, ensure the near impossibility of restricting the dissemination of basic research results."

Therefore, he said, "it may be argued that the only realistic policy is to insist on international reciprocity of access to scientific information as a condition for providing access to US universities for foreign firms and to ensure that US researchers take maximum advantage of opportunities for such access."

Areas of interest to the committee include foreign company support for research at universities, first-refusal rights of foreign companies on intellectual property, licensing of university patents to foreign companies and whether the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980-which assigned to universities the intellectual property rights to the US government-funded research they perform-is adequate to protect US interests.

The five witnesses told the hearing that the current law, which requires substantial manufacture in the US if goods are to be sold in the US, was effective in promoting the development of technology.

MIT Provost Wrighton, the first witness, said that in global scale problems such as environment, "international cooperation is essential, and ensuring an open academic setting will be required to make significant progress in such problem areas." He cited MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which is funded by both US and foreign corporations. "Restricting access to the university by foreign corporations would threaten the US leadership position in such global research problems."

Addressing a proposal to restrict access, Professor Wrighton said, "The implications of restricting access by foreign entities would have a chilling effect on the academic enterprise. Reciprocity, communication and support would be lost in areas where the US is only among the leaders but which are areas vital to US well being. It is evident that we must invest more in learning about what is going on around the world in order to overcome the 'Not Invented Here' syndrome."

Questioned about reciprocity, Dr. Wrighton cited the MIT Japan Program, in which MIT students "learn the Japanese language and culture so they can function in a Japanese lab." He cited the case of one of his students, Dr. David Albagli, who worked in a Mitsubishi lab in Japan and when he came back to the US, the agreement provided that Mitsubishi would support him back at MIT. "At the end, he could deliver a seminar in Japanese and field questions. The program allowed him to look at the research agenda inside a major Japanese corporation."

Dr. Wrighton said that a faculty committee headed by Professor Mert Flemings had been appointed to review MIT's corporate relationships. [Of $361 million in MIT campus research in FYI 1993, $62 million was funded by private corporations-$49 million from US corporations and $13 million from foreign corporations.]

Robin Risser, chief executive officer of an Ann Arbor, Mich. firm, Picometrix, Inc., recommended increasing the budget for patents and reducing patent barriers in order to make sure that "background technologies" developed prior to a foreign company's involvement were excluded from licensing arrangements.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY, the ranking minority member, was skeptical that the Japanese research labs were as open as ours. "Our universities are open-all the world beats a path to our door," he said, noting that he doubted the foreign corporations were as open.

Rep. Peter W. Barca, D-Wis., asked Dr. Wrighton whether it was appropriate or inappropriate to get advance access to information.

Dr. Wrighton responded, "You can gain facilitated access to open information. That same service is provided in many other ways. Early access is not going to be our problem. I would not be in favor of allowing access to early privileged information."

Asked if he felt the Bayh-Dole Act needed strengthening, Professor Wrighton said, "The strictures are severe-a cutoff of funds. I don't believe additional oversight is required."

Susan Wray, director of technology licensing at University of Florida, said "Bayh-Dole as written works well and should not be changed."

A version of this article appeared in the November 3, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 12).

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