'Biggest and Best' of the Feds
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
Maybe it was March Madness, but the recent all-day retreat held by NIH's technology transfer community had much of the flavor of a sports team meeting or training camp, including a talk by the team's general manager, in this case, NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus.
More than 100 people had gathered Mar. 16 in a small room at the Chevy Chase Holiday Inn. They were speaking their own language: "CRADAs" (cooperative research and development agreements), "intellectual property," the "Bayh-Dole Act" and the "FTTA" (laws enacted in the 1980's that form the bases for technology transfer activities) and "EIRs" (employee invention reports).
The morning led off with greetings from NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman. It was followed by a presentation on the role of the institutes and centers by the director of NIAID's Office of Technology Development, Dr. Mark Rohrbaugh, and a good deal of interactive strategizing led by NHGRI's chief of technology transfer Dr. Ron King, about how to better communicate with scientists, make patenting and licensing policies clearer, and balance technology transfer with NIH's fundamental mission of health and science. Just prior to the break for lunch, Dr. Maria Freire, director of NIH's Office of Technology Transfer, rose to take the mike and redirect the discussion.
"Let's take a few minutes to talk about efforts to educate ourselves," she said to the dozens of technology development coordinators, tech transfer policy board members, OTT staff and others whose job it is to see that the results of NIH research are appropriately commercialized into products that benefit public health. "This is no longer a 'Mom 'n' Pop' shop. We are the biggest and the best federal program out there. Nobody in the federal government touches us. We're trail blazing here. Only three universities have better stats than we do -- the entire University of California state system, Stanford and Columbia -- and they all have engineering programs [which are traditional purveyors of tech transfer]. NIH is number four. No question, we certainly set the standard for the government. But what can we do to be better? We've talked a lot about ways to educate the scientific community about the importance of technology transfer, but how can we educate ourselves so that we do our jobs better?"
In a nutshell, that's what the retreat hoped to accomplish -- encourage laborers in the technology development vineyards to ask questions, share success (and horror) stories and develop ways to move the relatively young field into the future.
During his remarks, Varmus noted the remarkable changes that have occurred in biological research over the last 20 years.
"When I began doing serious science in the 1970's," he recalled, "very little attention was paid to issues like patents, licensing or intellectual property protection. These just weren't notions that were tossed around much. We were aware that chemists, physicists and engineers did that kind of thing, but in biology, we just generated knowledge and hoped that it went somewhere."
Nowadays, he said, changes in law and in the nature of biological science have combined to help shift attitudes about issues of intellectual property. "We all have to recognize that there is a delicate balance," he continued, "between doing free-flowing science in the public interest and the problem of protecting legitimate intellectual property concerns."
Varmus discussed six "core beliefs" that constitute what he termed his "technology transfer creed."
Chiefly, he said, technology transfer activities should never tempt researchers to choose science for financial gain over science to further knowledge and public health. Second, NIH's extramural and intramural communities should be careful "not to form relationships with private concerns that would in any way impede -- by generating excessive secrecy or delays in publication, for example -- the free exchange of ideas that is fundamental for science at its best."
Third, he mentioned research tools, a controversial topic that is currently being studied by a group within Varmus's advisory committee to the NIH director. "What I may call a research tool, a small biotech company may call a major product," he said, explaining the potential for conflict. He said that although the complexity of research tools has grown, he still feels that "when such tools are developed -- especially when developed through public funding -- they should be made broadly available, under reasonable terms, to all who do basic research."
The fourth issue involves setting the proper value on discoveries. Varmus said there is a tendency of late by some scientists to overvalue their discoveries, or to place restrictions on sharing their work too early in its infancy, thereby inhibiting development of potentially important products. He said he depends on those in the NIH tech transfer community to determine appropriate innovations for patenting, licensing and other protection mechanisms.
Fifth, NIH must consider the implications of granting intellectual property rights to licensees, Varmus said. Among questions that need to be asked are: When is exclusivity appropriate, and when is it not?
The final tenet Varmus emphasized -- the need for better education in this area among NIH components -- brought the retreat full circle. He urged tech transfer workers to take full advantage of NIH's rich scientific environment to learn more about the science done here. Similarly, he said, scientists who may have been slow to become acquainted with the intricacies of patenting, licensing and the like should become more sophisticated in the field.
"In order for scientists and technology transfer officers to work effectively together," Varmus concluded, "it's extremely important that each understand what the other does. Obviously, respect in both directions demands a familiarity with what the other side is doing."
The retreat ended with sessions on licensing and CRADAs by OTT Senior Licensing Specialist Steven Ferguson and OTT Deputy Director Barbara McGarey, and a summation by Freire.
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