Thursday, March 6, 2014

Apple (1989) - Patenting University Research: Harry Steenbock and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

About the Author
Rima D. Apple is currently a Professor Emerita of Interdisciplinary Studies, and at the time of publication was affiliated with the Department of the History of Medicine. Professor Apple has held numerous appointments at UW-Madison, including STS, Women’s Studies, Human Ecology, and others. The full list can be easily found on her Faculty bio page (link below). In general, her research interests include child care and motherhood, home economics, nutrition, and the history of consumerism.

History as Storytelling
In many ways, Apple’s historical view of Steenbock’s vitamin D research and the development of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) read like a narrative. Her clear and engaging writing style made it easy to follow the story as told by the author in seven parts:
  1. Steenbock’s Background
  2. The Decision to Patent
  3. Patent Management and the Creation of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF)
  4. Licensing
  5. Research and the Problem of Commercialization
  6. WARF’s Development
  7. Aftermath of the Steenbock Patents: The Continuing Controversy

The story is told so well, in fact, that there is probably little need for me to retell it here for the sake of space. Instead, I will focus on the major developments, disagreements, and discussion.

On page 376, Apple aptly summarizes the article to follow:

“The controversy surrounding Steenbock’s efforts to patent the irradiation process and the subsequent development of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to manage the patents, their licenses, and their royalties provide a significant case study of the tensions and conflicts that arise at the intersection of university research and commercial enterprise. It demonstrates both the ways in which the work of academic laboratories can influence manufacturing and how the needs of the marketplace can shape the interests of academic scientists.”

The Controversy
Should university researchers (especially at public, land-grant universities) pursue patents for their academic work? 

Pro-Patent Arguments and the “Public Good”
Harry Steenbock considered himself a research scientist foremost, and distanced himself in theory from applied sciences and commercial interests. However, despite an ideological separation from the marketplace and industry, Steenbock felt it both important and necessary to patent his research on synthetic vitamin D and the irradiation process before publication (although this desire was not achieved due to competing research projects). His primary reasons for acquiring a patent were to “protect the public” and to support further research through the generation of revenue from license royalties. He felt a moral obligation to protect the public from non-reputable manufacturers who would develop both unsound and expensive products if unregulated or restricted. Through an extensive study of his personal correspondence and writing, as well as public actions, Apple sees no need to question the veracity of this moral stance, especially in the early years of WARF. In addition, Steenbock felt a personal obligation to protect the interests of Wisconsin’s dairy industry from the gorwing market for oleomargarines. Steenbock felt that patenting nutrition research was necessary for the public good.

Anti-Patent Arguments and the “Public Good”
Other faculty, as well as concerned members of the public, felt that the university had no place (from a moral or legal standpoint) to generate patents because their research was publicly funded, and so discoveries and work belonged to the public. In addition, opponents felt that researchers shouldn’t personally profit from their work. Key players include A.J. Glover, Hart, F.B. Morrison, and Kirk L. Hatch. Opponents of patent generation felt that university research should be available unrestricted to the public and available to anyone who needed it. Some felt that Steenbock’s specific blocking of the oleomargarine industry from enriching their products with vitamin D to be a direct threat to the health of those poorer citizens who could not afford Wisconsin dairy products, and saw Steenbock’s protection of the dairy industry as a reflection of their particular investment in university research. Opponents felt that patenting university research was against the needs of the broader public, and so contrary to the public good.

Patents and the Controversy Today
Today, there are lingering concerns over the patenting of university research. However, at the time this article was published in 1989, Apple states that the debate is ‘muted,’ and that patenting is common on campuses country-wide. 

The Development and Function of WARF
WARF was created to administer patents for UW’s faculty and staff, and was developed to be entirely separate from UW. The university and board of trustees/regents did not grant licenses or deal with industry. WARF would then transfer the revenue from royalties to UW’s preexisting Research Committee to fund projects as they see fit. Ideally, the system is a circle that looks like this:

  University Research
/ \
                                      Revenue Transferred to                   Patent
                                      Research Committee                         Research
\ /
WARF Administers Patents,
Grants Licenses

In reality, this system is more complicated. For example, Steenbock himself was heavily involved with WARF and manufacturers, despite his early avoidance of all applied science labs. In addition to granting licenses, WARF and Steenbock also overaw manufacturers, aided manufacturers in product testing, and even oversaw and regulated advertisements, with licensees’ displaying WARF’s name and seal on all ads (although this practice is not continued today). Direct royalties are not reinvested in university research. Instead, WARF invests revenue and transfers the interest to the Research Committee. Initially, Steenbock refused personal profit from his patents, but eventually accepted 15% of revenue, as WARF felt this would encourage other faculty to file patents through WARF.
It is clear that it did not take long for WARF and Steenbock to be influenced by commercial interests, with licenses granted to specific companies and pharmaceutical labs at the exclusion of others. Despite Steenbock’s social rhetoric, it is clear that his and WARF’s motivations were complex and effected by the marketplace.
By 1985, patents generated only 20% of WARF’s income, with 10 of 448 patents generated 90% of the royalties. WARF is considered to be the most successful of all university patent organizations or corporations.

Discussion Questions

  1. Although some see Steenbock’s later work on vitamin D application, product testing, and advertisement as proof that his research became commercialized, his personal view was always that this was humanitarian work. Are commercial and humanitarian interests always opposed? Does the researcher’s personal motivations to patent matter in light of commercial use of patent licenses?
  2. Are university patents necessary for the “public good”?
  3. Should patent foundations/organizations be entirely separate from the university, as the case with WARF, or should they be managed by universities directly?
  4. How do the possibilities and benefits offered by organizations like WARF influence the direction of university research? What are the problems? Would research interests differ if universities didn’t advocate patents and products as a specific goal?
  5. How did the market influence Steenbock? Should he have blocked licenses to the oleomargarine industry? Should the eventual license granted to oleomargarine be seen as a cautionary tale?

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