Campaign for Cambridge Science

See coverage in the Observer, the Telegraph, the Cambridge Evening News, THES, the Wall Street Journal and Frankfurter Rundschau

See Mike Clark's page on the history of intellectual property at Cambridge.

Science at Cambridge University is under threat. A policy change proposed by the University's central authorities will adversely change the employment conditions of existing faculty, make the recruitment of new faculty significantly harder, and threaten the future of the Cambridge Phenomenon - the large number of high-tech businesses spun off from the University.

At present, Cambridge (like MIT and Stanford) allows faculty members to keep the intellectual property we generate except where specific grant funding or commercial contracts impose other conditions - and even then we usually get a share of any royalty income.

This regime has long been associated with the success of our three universities at technology transfer. Cambridge, MIT and Stanford have each spun out large numbers of high-tech companies, many of them with faculty as founders. This has created large numbers of jobs, and huge tax revenues for local and national governments. Our success has led many other universities - especially in the USA - to offer faculty members a substantial share of royalty income as an incentive.

Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

In a Report on Intellectual Property Rights, issued on the 24th July (when university faculty and government ministers are on vacation), the University proposes to change our contracts of employment so that from the 1st January 2003, all faculty IPR will belong to it alone.

The effect of this change will be to treat all our ideas as if they had arisen in the course of a government-funded research project. An idea that two colleagues have in the tearoom, or even a flash of inspiration at home in the bath, will no longer belong to us - but to the bureaucrats of the University's Research Services Division.

The quite predictable result of this change in our contracts of employment - if it survives a vote in the Regent House and a challenge in the courts - will be to slowly strangle the flow of good ideas from Cambridge to industry. Some academics will leave; others will not take up posts here in the first place; and those who stay will be less likely to patent anything. (The central bureaucracy is such a pain to deal with that people will probably just publish their results instead.) If RSD start compelling us to disclose ideas to them, this will open a huge can of worms. In any case, the dramatic economic growth enjoyed by the Cambridge area over the past 30 years will tail off, and the University will slowly slide down from its position as one of the world's best.

There are potentially serious consequences for academic freedom as well as for economic growth and innovation. For example, many academics make software available for free (here is some of ours). This has become integral to scientific method in many disciplines: it is the natural way for researchers whose work is software-based to communicate and to build on each others' work. Unfortunately, Bill Gates - a large donor to the University - is currently running a jihad against free software (see, for example, here, here and here.) So long as we control our own research work individually, most of us will be able to ignore his views. But if the copyright in our software falls under the control of the central bureaucracy, they will have every motive to accommodate Microsoft. When they do so, many of us will find our research gravely damaged. (This is already happening at some US institutions.)

There are also issues with moral rights. For example, in the mid-1990s, William Arbaugh of the University of Pennsylvania invented a security mechanism that now underlies the TCPA initiative managed by Intel. Dr Arbaugh has now decided that he disapproves of TCPA. However, as U Penn has a policy of owning all faculty IP, they own his patent and there is nothing he can do.

Incentives and technology transfer

So our authorities are seeking a huge change in the scientific and technological environment at Cambridge - from one of the most liberal regimes in the world to a frankly repressive one. The argument used in the report to justify it is somewhat breathtaking. It claims that the link between the liberal IP rules at MIT, Stanford and Cambridge and our success at technology transfer is `superfically attractive, but is unprovable and a policy based on assertion and belief is hard to justify'. Yet there are two papers that show, using proper econometric methods and large (>100) sample sizes, a positive correlation between faculty incentives and the success of technology transfer.

These papers are

The second paper is available by email from Don Siegel (

Here are links to the IP polices at MIT and Stanford, and to our current policy which is very similar to MIT's. For samples of the IP policies of other leading US universities, see for example those of CMU and Columbia. CMU gives faculty all their copyright and 85% of patent income, unless the research was funded by the university in which case they get 50%; Columbia gives faculty all their copyright and 25% of patent, plus a further 25% to be spent on their research, and allows faculty to veto any license on conscientious grounds. The worst is Johns Hopkins where the inventor's share is as low as 10%. (Johns Hopkins is notoriously the worst major US university when it comes to technology transfer.) Some other US policies are linked here, while the policies of Canadian universities are here.

Here is a UUK survey of the value of tech transfer to the UK economy and don't forget that the Government spent millions of pounds of tax money on the Cambridge-MIT Institute to help us learn as much as possible from MIT about how to commercialize our research. The return on that investment of public funds now looks in serious doubt.

We hear strong rumours that the DTI put the University up to this. There is certainly a policy document from the Patent Office which suggests that universities should own IP to make it more manageable. The Government's science policy talks at length about the value of tech transfer, and the need for incentives for companies, while remaining conspicuously silent on incentives for the people who're supposed to produce the ideas in the first place. Indeed, at p 34 it argues that as most universities get most of their money from HEFCE, this should lead to the university owning intellectual property created by staff on behalf of the taxpayer. But surely they don't think it fair to apply this to universities like Cambridge that get only a minority of our income from government funding? So we invited David Sainsbury and Patricia Hewitt to distance themselves from this initiative, but they have failed to do so. The press response to our campaign has been left to the University, which says that it's merely bringing us into line with all other universities. (Even in the UK, this is untrue; UMIST, for example, allows faculty to keep IP, and many other institutions have more liberal rules than the ones now proposed here. The real comparison should of course be with America.)

What next?

If you are a faculty member in the humanities, you might think this does not really affect you. You would be wrong. University administrators even appear to be resorting to censorship in order to get their way.

So humanities scholars might care to ponder the wise words of Martin Niemoller. You're next.

We must defeat this measure. It's years since anyone has defeated a Grace in the Regent House, so it will be hard work. We need at least one evangelist in each college, and each department, to get out the vote. If you can help, please get in touch with me: I'm rja14 and my office number is 34733.

Ross Anderson