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Bush science advisers contemplate technology transfer

Determining just how effective the federal government is in translating its new discoveries into private-sector successes can be difficult because it is so hard to measure, but the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) wants to sort it out so it can craft a list of "best practices" that federal labs and universities can follow.

"It is hard to come to a consensus on how technology transfer is doing," Mark Wang, associate director of RAND's Science and Technology Policy Institute, said on Thursday at a RAND forum. It is difficult if not impossible to put a dollar value on some research because it can be decades before the benefits are realized in the marketplace, he said.

That means policymakers should develop more meaningful metrics, with the understanding that "one size does not fit all," said Bruce Mehlman, assistant secretary for technology policy at the Commerce Department. "We've got to measure what we value and not value what we measure," Mehlman said, cautioning that policymakers should be careful not to skew the research toward short-term efforts because they are easier to quantify.

Mehlman also outlined recommendations that he said PCAST should consider during its review of technology transfer policies. Research labs should focus on making the transfer of government research to the private sector a priority and a part of the culture, he said.

Policymakers also need to understand the effect the Bayh-Dole Act, which outlines the process for technology transfer, has on getting new technologies from federal labs into the hands of consumers.

Some comments filed with PCAST were defensive of the law, Mehlman said. He urged the research community to be honest in its assessment of the statute. The administration wants "to strengthen technology transfer, not bury it," he said.

Lita Nelson, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's technology-transfer office, urged policymakers to leave the Bayh-Dole Act alone. "Don't twiddle with it like the tax code," she said, because it has taken universities about a dozen years to tweak the process and get it right.

Nelson noted that the trend in technology transfer has been small, startup companies jumping on the latest technologies, developing the applications and then forging partnerships with large companies. "Large companies have been reluctant to take great risk" because the volatile stock market demands a quick return on investment," Nelson said.

She also urged policymakers to leave patent law alone, noting that it has withstood "all sorts of new technology without changing definitions."

However, lawmakers are going to have to determine how to handle technology transfer from the new Homeland Security Department, said David Beier, partner at the Hogan and Hartson law firm. Beier said the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should coordinate the effort to find ways to transition research to combat bioterrorism and other issues into products that will benefit the public.