Grace, gold, or glory? Exploring incentives for invention disclosure in the university context

Comments on an article by T. Walter, C. Ihl, R. Mauer, and M. Brettel published in 2018.

Grace, glory or gold?

The original article

Walter, T., Ihl, C., Mauer, R. and Brettel, M. (2018) ‘Grace, gold, or glory? Exploring incentives for invention disclosure in the university context’, The Journal of Technology Transfer, 43(6), pp. 1725–1759. doi: 10.1007/s10961-013-9303-1.


Quick summary

  • A comparison of incentives for university scientists to patent their research findings.

  • The study finds that incentives are a valid way to change behaviours, but single incentives are insufficient.

  • A combination of three types of incentives is proposed: financial participation in the outcome (‘‘gold’’), recognition of achievements in performance assessment and career (‘‘glory’’), and a patent grace period which allows for publication prior to a patent filing (‘‘grace’’).

More detailed comments

Background

The study was conducted by four researchers from the RWTH Aachen University in Germany.

An earlier study involving one of the researchers looked at the question of what constitutes an incentive for university scientists to make their research results available for technology transfer. This earlier study identified three broad categories of incentives:

  • material motives and incentives (such as financial remuneration)

  • immaterial motives and incentives (such as recognition or awards)

  • favourable working conditions, including the reduction of barriers.

Based on this earlier study, Walter et al. selected eight types of incentives to be tested: four financial incentives (the first category), two non-monetary incentives (the second category), and two factors intended to reduce barriers (the third category). Instead of testing individual incentives in isolation, the study was designed to test various combinations of the eight incentives and to test multiple options for each incentive. The eight incentives evaluated in the study are as follows, with options for each incentive being shown in parentheses:

  • a one-off payment to each inventor for granted patents

  • a percentage of revenues from invention sale or licence to be paid to inventors

  • a percentage of revenues from invention sale or licence to be paid to the work group

  • a percentage of revenues from invention sale or licence to be paid to the faculty

  • the inclusion of granted patents in academic performance assessments

  • an annual public award in recognition of granted patents, depending on number and value

  • the degree of TTO presence on campus (internal university-owned TTO on-campus vs external TTO not owned by the university)

  • a grace period for patent filings in which research may be patented within 12 months of publication (no grace period vs grace period).

Walter et al. explain why each of these incentives may be attractive to academics. I found the following comments to be quite interesting:

  • Sharing the revenues for invention sale or licence: such revenues are highly uncertain and are not paid for a considerable time – typically at least a decade from when the invention is first developed. Walter et al. found that university scientists and administrators are acutely aware of this. The problem is particularly pronounced for biomedical and pharmaceutical research where “high failure rates are not uncommon and years of extensive clinical trials precede market entry”. They therefore expect that a share of revenue should have a greatly diminished incentive effect.

  • The percentage of revenue paid to the faculty: Walter et al. observe that earlier literature indicates “scientists share a sense of responsibility for the financial wellbeing of their larger organizational home unit”.

  • Public awards: earlier literature indicates “prestige, visibility and reputation are important drivers of university patenting”. Walter et al. therefore expect public recognition in the form of awards should be an incentive.

  • The degree of TTO presence: Walter et al. state “it is well established that the technology transfer infrastructure of a university in general and the perceived performance of the TTO in particular at least partly shape the decision of faculty whether to engage in invention disclosure”. The authors postulate that “the presence of an internal university-owned proactive technology transfer office in town or on campus, as compared to an external technology transfer office operating more passively at the regional level of more than one university, is perceived as an incentive for invention disclosure”.

Findings

Walter et al. found that incentives can “raise the probabilities for invention disclosure considerably” and concluded that “incentives are indeed a valid instrument to promote university technology transfer and initiate behavioral change”. However, the results indicate multiple incentives may be needed to cause sufficient behavioural change.


The findings lead Walter et al. to propose a combination of three incentives which they refer to as gold, glory and grace:

  • “Gold” refers to both types of financial payments to inventors, namely one-off payments for granted patents, and a share of revenue. Walter et al. say “universities must, above all, get the financial part of their incentive systems right in order to make them effective, as financial incentives account for roughly two-thirds of total impact”. The authors recommend considering flexible schemes that include one-off payments for granted patents and topping up any legally required share of revenue for inventors (if such a law exists) because “these two financial incentives achieve the highest impact”.

  • “Glory” refers to the inclusion of patent counts in performance assessments. This incentive enables entrepreneurial activity in the form of patents to play a role in career advancement. The authors say that this “holds promise in terms of incentive impact, but is by no means straightforward to implement, as patent practices vary substantially across fields of research and industry”.

  • “Grace” refers to a grace period of 12 months for patent filings which would enable research to be patented within 12 months after the invention has been published. Such a grace period is determined by the patent system in the local jurisdiction and is beyond the control of a research organisation. The rationale for a grace period is it would allow researchers to meet a tight deadline for conference presentation without needing to simultaneously file a patent application.

There were some variations between types of academics:

  • Applied researchers, and especially engineers, were more receptive to incentives in general, particularly financial incentives.

  • Academics with previous patenting experience were “more concerned with immediate benefits (primarily financial ones), but also value the alignment with career advancement”.

  • Senior and experienced researchers (especially tenured professors) were significantly less interested in all incentives except for the TTO office incentive (the degree of TTO presence on campus).

Interestingly, Walter et al. do not advocate public awards because “the very limited size of their effect in relation to other incentives does not seem to justify the effort”. However, they acknowledge this finding goes against other literature on awards and may need further investigation.


Regarding the degree of TTO presence on campus, Walter et al. do not dispute the importance of TTOs in technology transfer. They say the results “can be interpreted as a warning not to overestimate its perceived (incentive) value to university scientists who have little or no experience with technology transfer.”


Data used in the study

The data consisted of online survey responses from 1686 academics at nine technical universities in Germany in 2010 and 2011.