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Change in draft conflict policy would vest invention ownership with university

STANFORD -- After months of deliberation and rewriting, the Committee on Research is putting final touches on a draft policy on conflict of interest and conflict of commitment that will be submitted to the Faculty Senate early winter quarter.

Committee Chair Craig Heller, biological sciences, visited the senate on Thursday, Nov. 11, to make a brief progress report, distribute copies of a summary of the draft provisions, and ask for feedback on its "10 commandments."

In a major proposed change, the latest version of the draft recommends that the university hold title to all inventions created by faculty using university resources. Currently, ownership is given to the faculty member unless spelled out otherwise by a granting agency.

At the senate and in a subsequent interview, Heller said the issue of ownership of intellectual property rights inevitably creates a conflict of interest for the faculty member. This could be avoided by routinely assigning ownership of inventions to the university, he said.

Because such a change is not actually in the purview of the Committee on Research, the recommendation will be passed on to university trustees. Heller said his committee saw the need for the change in the context of its work overhauling conflict of interest and commitment policies.

Inventions usually result from a mix of grants, contracts and gift funds, and also invariably involve use of the university's physical resources, Heller said. "We could not find a way of getting around the fact that that creates a very serious conflict of interest" for a faculty member who is trying to sort out which source supported or, more important, did not support the work leading to the invention.

With the university holding title, royalties would be divided as they are now for inventions created under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation: one-third to the faculty, one-third to the department and one-third to the school.

The latest draft policy also prohibits faculty members from serving as principal investigators at other institutions, although exceptions could be made, Heller said.

"The intent is to say to faculty members that work that can be done at Stanford should be done at Stanford," Heller said. "If you are directing significant intellectual energies elsewhere, that detracts from what you are contributing to students and colleagues."

A parallel policy would prohibit faculty members from serving in significant corporate managerial positions. Working weekends for a company is not a problem, Heller said. But serving as chief operating officer or vice president for research in a large corporation raises issues of how much of the faculty member's efforts are being directed into external activities.

The committee is having some trouble developing appropriate language for this provision, Heller said. "We're trying to generate wording that will make it clear that there is an obligation to direct primary intellectual efforts to work at Stanford."

Consulting one day a week is fine, Heller said. However, it should not be an all-consuming activity, where a faculty member is worrying about it six days a week even if the actual work takes only one day.

Heller and his committee have been working on the draft policy since last year. The 10 basic policy provisions in the newly released document will be expanded and fully explained in the policy's final form, Heller said.

The new policy will set forth obligations of faculty, who are expected to devote their primary energy and time to Stanford. They will be expected to foster an atmosphere of academic freedom, and not to use university resources or privileged information for personal gain.

Faculty members will be required to disclose proposed gifts, sponsored projects and consulting arrangements, and must annually certify compliance with the conflict policies. The dean of a school may establish an independent committee to review the appropriateness of proposed research to be conducted, and deans will be able to approve exceptions to the policy.

Heller said he is eager to hear from faculty members who consider the proposals problematic. He also would like to know if anything has been left out.

Developing the conflict of commitment policies has been challenging, Heller said, because no statement existed of the obligations or responsibilities of faculty members. "How could you say there was a conflict of commitment if the expected commitment is not defined?" he asked.



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