Academics engage in commercial activities for a number of reasons – but not for money

Recognising diverse motives and differences across fields also allows us to offer more robust and nuanced guidance to managers, university administrators, and policy makers, says Henry Sauermann

Academics are becoming increasingly involved in commercial activities – such as applying for patents, new venture creation, and consulting. There are concerns that these activities may cause scientists to neglect academia’s core mission of ‘pure’ research or possibly even compromise access to research findings. Despite the fact that most of the research into this area does not support these concerns, they remain prominent in both literature and public discourse. On the other hand, there is also an alternative view, mostly among policy makers, that deepening commercial ties with academics may increase the regional and national economic impact of academic knowledge. This is demonstrated in certain policies which aim to encourage academic commercial activity.

Regardless of whether the goal of administrators and policy makers is to stimulate commercial engagement or discourage it, it is useful to understand why academics engage in commercial activities in the first place. Although there is a growing body of research into the motives and incentives of academics who engage in commercial activities, there are important gaps remaining. First, most research attempting to understand academics’ commercial activities focuses on a particular academic field on its own without exploring the variety of motives across different academic fields. This is a potential problem because the benefits, costs, and motives for engaging in commercial activities are likely to differ between fields. Second, the underlying assumption in much of the discussion is that academics try to maximise their own benefits – whether in terms of financial income or reputation and career advancement. There is little attention to the idea that academics may also care about the social impact of their work.

My research, conducted alongside colleagues Wesley M. Cohen and Paula Stephan from the U.S., investigated the relationship between academics’ motives and engagement in commercial activity in three different academic fields: the life sciences, engineering, and physical sciences. We analysed survey data from 2,094 academics from 160 US institutions and measured their commercial activity using the number of patent applications. A patent is a form of intellectual property that gives its owner the legal right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention for a period of time. The survey also asked participants how important they thought the following motives were when considering a job: peer recognition, salary, intellectual challenge, and social impact.

We found that the relationships between motives and patenting differed among the three different fields:

1In the life sciences – including fields such as biology and environmental sciences – academics with more patent applications placed greater importance on having a social impact. This suggests life scientists are likely aware that, for society to benefit from new discoveries, securing patents is essential for incentivising companies to invest in products (such as new drugs) to bring them to market. Income, intellectual challenge, and career advancement motives had no significant relationship with patenting in the life sciences.

2In engineering, those with more patent applications also considered intellectual challenge and peer recognition more important. This suggests that engineers who care strongly about advancing in their career allocate more time to commercial activity. This may be because commercial outputs, such as patents, are looked upon more favourably by peers in engineering than in other fields.

3In the physical sciences, in contrast, academics who put a high value on peer recognition were less likely to patent: The most active patentees in fields such as physics and mathematics were those with little concern for peer recognition. This suggests that physical scientists who care strongly about their careers allocate less effort to commercial activity, unlike the engineers. This is possibly due to the higher cost of engaging in commercial work in the physical sciences than engineering: physical scientists who engage in commercial activities may have to sacrifice more of the time they could otherwise be spending on ‘traditional’ academic research and its associated career rewards. Commercial engagement in the physical sciences – but not other fields – may ‘blemish’ their academic careers.

For scientists in various fields, engaging in commercial activities can be more lucrative in financial terms than relying on ‘pure’ academic work. However, our research shows that money is not an important motive for why scientists might choose to engage in commercial activities: There is virtually no association between an interest in money and patent applications for any of the three fields. This may be because the expected financial returns from patenting being very low. As such, placing an emphasis on the revenue that patents can potentially generate does little to incentivise commercial activities performed by scientists and engineers. Instead, as our findings demonstrate, other motives play a much more important role.

These results highlight the importance of considering the differences in individuals’ motives within academic fields as well as differences in the rewards and opportunity costs related to commercial work across fields. Furthermore, these findings are useful for discussing the potential negative effects of commercial activities – patenting in particular – on the sharing of academic knowledge. Intellectual property rights can be utilised in different ways, with their impact on knowledge sharing potentially dependent on the motives of the inventors and patent holders. For example, a scientist who is motivated to patent in order to improve social welfare may be willing to share knowledge more freely than a scientist who patents for their own career advancement.

Policies and management practices should take into account the differences between academic fields when it comes to motives behind commercial activities. For example, there may be less reason to be concerned about distractions from traditional academic work in fields where academic and commercial work are closely linked, such as among life scientists. Policy makers and technology transfer offices need to recognise these differences in motives and structure their support mechanisms and policies accordingly. When it comes to encouraging academic commercial activity, instead of focusing solely on the amount of revenue earned from patents, it may be more effective to highlight other rewards linked to commercial work, such as potential social impact or career advancement.

Even beyond the context of commercial activities, recognising the important role of diverse motives, as well as differences across fields, can have many benefits. In future research, paying attention to motives may help us understand how scientists make important decisions such as which career path to take, which employer to work for, or which research problems to tackle. Recognising diverse motives and differences across fields also allows us to offer more robust and nuanced guidance to managers, university administrators, and policy makers.

Henry Sauermann is a Professor of Strategy at ESMT Berlin and explores the role of human capital in science, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Among others, he studies how scientists’ motives and incentives relate to important outcomes such as innovative performance in firms, patenting in academia, or career choices and entrepreneurial interests.

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