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Fine-tuning due for conflict of interest, commitment policy

STANFORD -- Responding to new feedback, Professor Craig Heller and his Committee on Research will fine-tune their proposed policy on faculty conflict of interest and commitment.

Heller said Monday, Feb. 7, that the committee may tighten up language on intellectual property rights and loosen provisions relating to students who work for faculty outside the university.

The draft policy would require faculty to have a significant presence on campus and disclose their outside consulting activities. It also would vest the university with ownership of all technologies created or invented by faculty using university resources.

The committee collected feedback on its latest draft during an open meeting Monday afternoon. Only a handful of faculty were among the audience of 16 in Tresidder's large Oak West Lounge.

"I really thought there would be a lot more reaction," Heller said.

"I know there are a lot of people reacting behind the scenes, but I don't know when it's going to come out."

He speculated that he might collect more input when the draft is taken up by the Faculty Senate on March 3.

Heller told the open meeting audience the policy is "primarily educational." It sets forth principles and procedures but is not a legal guide, he said.

The most important reason for eventually adopting the proposed policy, Heller said, is that the university must be able to prove to outsiders "that our motives and our ethics are all in order."

"There aren't major problems" in conflict of interest and commitment at Stanford, he said. "But we want to be absolutely sure that we warrant the status of being an institution of public trust."

Much of Monday's discussion focused on how to vest ownership of software and other intellectual property.

The current draft stipulates that all technologies with commercial potential created or discovered by faculty using university resources must be disclosed to the university, which will claim ownership. Computer software for teaching purposes or dissemination of scholarly work would be excluded from the disclosure requirement - along with books, articles, artistic works and other forms of educational media - and the university would not claim ownership.

Software presents a challenge, Heller told the audience.

The Committee on Research has looked on software as similar to an invention that runs a machine, Heller told the audience.

However, the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems puts software in the same category as books, articles and scholarly works, a position the Faculty Senate adopted last year. This would exempt software from university ownership.

Elliott Levinthal, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering, told the committee he would draw the line as close to tradition as possible.

"Before computers, we wrote books. Now we have the possibility of distributing them on CD-ROM," he said.

All software that is not simply dissemination in digital form of something that could be printed should be covered by the policy on inventions, he said, including interactive teaching programs and operating systems.

Heller said after the meeting that the committee tried to draw the line at commercial vs. educational intent of the software, but that is a difficult criterion. Some will say an introductory textbook - whether printed or on disk - was done for economic gain and others will argue instructional motives, he said. Either way, it is an argument "you can't win."

In other discussions, James Collman, chemistry, criticized provisions of the proposed policy relating to invention disclosure as overly broad and vague, and possibly subject to abuse by the administration. He said that when faculty members develop inventions while consulting for outside companies, the invention would be owned by the company and could not be disclosed to Stanford because of confidentiality limitations.

Heller said the committee had not anticipated problems with confidentiality agreements, and would take that under consideration.

Steve Gorelick, geological and environmental sciences, criticized the draft policy for not stating clearly the limits of disclosure. When consulting for environmental firms, "they don't want you to disclose that you are working for them," he said.

Committee member Ross Shachter, engineering-economic systems, said the current policy does not require disclosure unless there is some other entanglement with the university.

Warren Hausman, industrial engineering, told the committee that the statement about maintaining a significant presence on campus might be inconsistent with the modern electronic age, when students can communicate with faculty through electronic mail.

He also criticized the policy for prohibiting faculty from hiring students for after-hours work that might be helpful to the student in his or her academic work.

Committee member Steve Boxer, chemistry, said the committee focused on faculty members with financial interest in companies hiring students to work outside the university. That is prohibited, although exceptions can be made, he said.

Committee members agreed that the wording might be liberalized in cases where the student would work for a faculty member in an outside company in which the professor has no financial interest.

Heller said after the meeting that "we bent over backward" to protect students from undue faculty control. That language could be loosened, he said.



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