Harvard is entitled to its "will-she-or-won't-she?" morality play concerning direct pursuit of big profits from genetic-engineering developments that came out of its own laboratories. But in the sector of academe that long ago dispensed wth pretensions of chastity -- which means most of academe -- the Cambridge melodrama rates snickers.
Holding the promise for repeating the gargantuan fortune-making of the electronics revolution, gene splicing has already created a few scientist millionaires. Among them are the founders of a California-based company, Genentech, which, though yet to earn a profit, went public recently with a heavily oversubscribed $500 million roar.
In such circumstances, attention is drawn to that venerable barroom challenge, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" And so, even before the Genentech stock market spectacular, Harvard President Derek Bok invited his faculty to consider the implications if the university itself joined with outside individuals and organizations in setting up a corporate enterprise to go for the gold, of which even heavily endowed Harvard could use more.
Doubters have countered with concern that the tradition of academic openness is incompatible with the business world's reliance on trade secrets and other cards-to-the-vest practices. As a result, a kind of debate is on, though in view of academe's commercialized track record over the past 25 years, partial amnesia may be in the picture.
While Bok insists that the biggest difference in the proposal under discussion is Harvard's potential involvement as a corporate entity -- rather than through traditional involvement of faculty members as consultants to industry -- the difference doesn't amount to much in terms of worries about industrial secrecy and its feedback effects on the academic spirit.
The intertwining of academe and instrustry through consultancy relationships is so well established that the mischief-making potential of such linkups has had ample time to flower. The subject, however, is relatively unexplored, because academics, liking that range of $200 to perhaps $1,000 a day that industry pays for tapping their specialized knowledge, are not inclined to deviate from the buyers' insistence that they keep quiet about the substance of their consulting duties. In fact, a sure-fire way to touch off a professorial revolt is to require faculty members to list their consulting clients and income. Many academics gladly stretch their slumping salaries by hiring out to industry and somehow conclude that this work, too, is covered by the mantle of academic freedom.
There is some difference, of course, in putting the whole institution into business, as compared with permitting its employees to forage for themselves on the usual basis of one day of consulting per week. But not much difference when it comes to maintaining the canons of academic purity.
As for universities' being out in the market place, seeking to capitalize on the knowledge acquired in their laboratories -- without any embarrassment whatever -- that's become one of academe's biggest growth sectors. Many of the so-called research universities have hired patent scouts to range through their laboratories in quest or marketable developments. (Theyou've got their own professional association, the Society of University Patent Administrators.) Stanford, which set up an Office of Technology Licensing in 1970s, turns up four to six inventions a month that it either offers to outside companies or for which it tries to set up special companies. Commercialization of knowledge is keenly pursued in the big leagues of academe, regardless of the contrary impression that might be gleaned from Harvard's public hand-wringing.
Academics long ago became accustomed to their business offices' dealing in real estate and other properties. (New York University once owned a spaghetti factory.) The grubby matter of trade gets closer to the heart of academe when knowledge is for sale. But it's been for sale for many years.