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The ‘Oxford model’ and the ‘anti-commons’ threat to the long-run vitality of collaborative e-Science

Date & Time:
16:00:00 - 18:00:00,
Tuesday 29 July, 2008


Paul David speaks on the case for new moves in ‘legal jujitsu’ to mitigate adverse unintended consequences of growing university engagements in commercial exploitation of publicly funded research.

Background to the talk

The rapid spread during the past two decades of policies that have encouraged universities and other public research organizations (PROs) to claim and commercially exploit intellectual property rights based upon their faculties’ research findings has stirred both expressions of worried concern and enthusiasm. In a recently published article, two distinguished scientists (with Oxford connections) join the current and former managing director of Isis Innovation (the university-owned technology transfer company established by Oxford in 1988) in presenting a restrained version of the enthusiastic view (Cook et al., 2008).

The authors contend that the controversy surrounding the growing commercialization of university research arises not so much from any real conflicts between the academic and business missions and their respective research cultures as from mutual suspicions and distrust about the division of the financial benefits and the efforts entailed in a successful ‘technology transfer.’ These difficulties, and related conflicts of interest, they suggest, are resolvable by following the principles of ‘the Oxford model’ – by separating the phases of research, technology transfer and actual market exploitation of the patents, and providing a trusted intermediary operating on the lines of Isis Innovation to develop and manage relationships between academic researchers the executives of the business companies involved.

Apart from the university taking equity-ownership positions in the companies ‘spun-out’ by Isis Innovation, and the latter company taking an active role in ‘assisted’ consultancy contracts between university researchers in external parties, the arrangements described as ‘the Oxford Model’ are appear quite unexceptional in the general run of university-based technology transfer organizations (TTOs). What is remarkable about this particular article is the authors’ presentation of the problematic issues as arising from the unfortunate (and avoidable) confusion of discussions about technology transfer by the interjection of considerations about ‘the setting of priorities of the university itself.’ Their concluding message is simply this: ‘When developing technology transfer systems, the active support of senior university personnel, both researchers and administrators, is essential.’

This parochially ‘Oxonian view’ fails to confront most of the issues that have been raised in the extensive empirical research and policy discussions that economists and other social scientists in the science and technology policy field have devoted to issues arising from the growth of ‘academic patenting’, and the activities university TTOs in the US, the EU, and other OECD countries.

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  • Name: Professor Paul Allan David
  • Affiliation: Quondam Senior Fellow, OII, and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College,
    University of Oxford
  • Role:
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  • Bio: David is known internationally for his contributions in American economic history, economic and historical demography, and the economics of science and technology. He is the author of more than 150 journal articles and contributions to edited books, as well as of Technical Choice, Innovation and Economic Growth and other volumes under his own name. He is the Founding Editor of the journal ‘Economics of Innovation and New Technology’. David has been elected as a Fellow of the International Econometric Society, Fellow of the American Philosophical Society, Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. He is a past Vice-President and President of the Economic History Association, and served as an elected Member of Council of the Royal Economic Society. He is a Senior Fellow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), and Professorial Fellow of Maastrict Institute of Economic Research on Innovation and Technology (MERIT, University of Maastricht).