Published online 10 December 2008 | Nature 456, 685-686 (2008) | doi:10.1038/456685a

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Patent pledge to Indian universities

Critics worry that push for technology transfer is moving too fast.

India's parliament will soon be scrutinizing a bill intended to help publicly funded institutes and universities commercialize their research. India's science minister, Kapil Sibal, is confident that the bill will become law and will help Indian universities "make millions through patents".

Kapil Sibal, India's science minister, wants the universities to create wealth.Kapil Sibal, India's science minister, wants the universities to create wealth.M. QURAISHI/AP

But the bill has been pushed through without an open debate and is not publicly available, prompting concern. "In a democracy you cannot bulldoze a bill like this," says Pushpa Bhargava, former vice-chair of the National Knowledge Commission.

The idea is widely believed to be the brainchild of Raghunath Mashelkar, former director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who has turned his own labs into veritable patent factories (see Nature 442, 120; 2006). After the knowledge commission backed the move in 2007, the government asked the Department of Biotechnology to draft wording for the bill, which the Indian cabinet approved on 31 October. It had been slated to go before a parliamentary committee this month, but the Mumbai terror attacks may cause it to be pushed into early 2009.

The bill is modelled on the 1980 US Bayh–Dole Act, which allowed US universities topatent discoveries derived from federally funded work. According to the Indian bill, scientists would be allowed to retain 30% of the net income earned from patents and licences. The scientist's institute would retain 40%, with the rest going into a fund maintained by the institute for managing intellectual property. Researchers in publicly funded institutes or universities would also be allowed, for the first time, to set up and work in private companies without having to leave their academic jobs.

"The benefits of publicly funded research are not reaching the public," Sibal told a meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in October. "We need to create an environment in which wealth can be generated from the university system."

Only a few top institutes in India have a good grasp of patents and markets. Between 1990 and 2002, Indian universities accounted for only 3% of patents filed by Indian organizations in the Indian patent office, and 1% of Indian patents filed in the US patent office, according to the New Delhi-based National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. Researchers at institutes without a well-developed technology-transfer office can apply to the National Research Development Corporation in New Delhi for help in commercializing their work.

Heads of publicly funded institutes support the bill in principle. "This will empoweruniversities in an era of patents and competitiveness," says Samir Brahmachari, director general of the CSIR. But he notes that scientists and institutes also need to strike a balance between earning profits and keeping the public interest in mind, especially in fields such as affordable health care and infectious diseases.

Most university academics have not read the bill, and their opinions on the initiative are mixed. Some welcome it, saying it will increase awareness of patenting. Others are concerned that teaching and basic research might get sidelined.

Indian industry is enthusiastic about the move. Amit Mitra, the FICCI's secretary general, argues that the Bayh–Dole Act helped US universities earn revenue from key discoveries, such as the anti-AIDS drug stavudine at Yale University and recombinant-DNA technology at the University of California and Stanford University.

SOURCE: WIPO

But some analysts say that the US model cannot be replicated in India, where most universities are hampered by poor funds and outdated infrastructure, and where fewer students are choosing to take up science. "Many students end up doing neither frontline basic science nor applied technology, and fall in-between with mediocre work," notes Ashok Parthasarathi, former science adviser to the Indian government. He says the bill is both "impractical andinfeasible" to implement, specifying what he calls "absurd time periods". The university or laboratory in question would need to notify the government about patentable results within 60 days of realizing the patent potential, and indicate within 90 days the countries it would file patent in.

"One should not expect Indian universities to have an instant capacity to file and maintain patents, follow up on infringements, and negotiate technology transfers," adds Krishna Ravi Srinivas, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries. Still, he says, "a beginning has to be made somewhere, and Bayh–Dole is the best model we have".

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Within the past few years, China, Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa have passed Bayh–Dole-type laws, hoping to capitalize on their research. But some experts argue that this approach may not work in developing countries.

Bhaven Sampat, an economist at Columbia University in New York City and co-author of a recent study on the subject (A. D. So et al. PLoS Biol. 6 , e262; 2008), argues that Bayh–Dole did not significantly affect the commercialization of US academic research. He cites 2006 data from the Association of University Technology Managers that suggest US universities, hospitals and research institutions derived $1.85 billion from technology licensing — less than 5% of the money they received from federal, state and industry funders. 

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