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 LAST WORD

BY ROBERT J. KUNTZ

PARADIGM LOST

Engineering schools can help rescue our intellectual capital.


America’s intellectual capital is seriously at risk, and the role of engineering education in saving it is pivotal. But first and foremost, academic leaders must understand that this potential loss — of no less than the cumulative body of technical knowledge and engineering skill that in the past made the United States a leader in the global economy — could be catastrophic. And then, they must take action.

What forces are holding back this country’s inventors and innovators? There can be no doubt that the confluence of two overarching trends has created a discouraging environment for engineers and scientists and has virtually institutionalized a set of disincentives to innovation and invention.

The first of these is the financial industry’s treatment of intellectual capital as just another market-priced commodity to be quantified for maximum shareholder value and return on investment. Wall Street’s troubles in recent months have not prevented its corporations from continuing to devalue America’s intellectual strength by pressuring Congress to permit the increasing export of knowledge-based jobs overseas and the import into this country of foreign technical workers on short-term visas.

Corporate officers may argue that these policies, based on cost efficiencies, benefit their bottom lines — and that may be. They do not, however, enhance America’s position in a global economy; in fact, quite the contrary. They suppress the intellectual capital that drives economic excellence.

The second trend is far more damaging: the practice of withholding intellectual property rights from the scientists and engineers, inventors and innovators, to whom they often most rightly belong. Whether the job is in industry, government or – yes – academia, engineers and other technical professionals are generally, and as a matter of course, required to preassign all of their intellectual property rights to their employers as a condition of employment.

Such preassignment agreements require employees to inform their employers of their discoveries and cede to them the rights to file for patents or copyrights or to simply shove the whole idea into a desk drawer and forget about it.

Never mind that these “contracts” are by their very nature signed under duress, since a jobseeker won’t get hired without signing away his or her intellectual property rights; they also can place onerous limits on an engineer’s professional mobility and creative drive. The restrictions can apply to inventions that are developed on the job as part of the inventor’s duties (so-called service inventions) – but also to those that are discovered outside the workplace. And some preassignment agreements include so-called trailing clauses and noncompete covenants that keep the engineer’s intellectual capital in the hands of the employer for a specified time even after he or she has left the company.

In today’s uncertain global marketplace, the United States should be ramping up incentives for innovation and technological advances — even breakthroughs. Instead, quite the opposite is happening.

How can this paradigm be shifted? Engineering schools, because of their fundamental position at the intersection of education and innovation, are in a unique position to effect change. They can do this by:

  • Developing specific curricula for a better understanding of intellectual property, entrepreneurship, patent law, preassignment agreements, and the like
  • Demanding bilateral rather than unilateral intellectual property agreements – meaning the benefits would flow both to faculty and students conducting research on campus and to industry partners.
  • Collectively contributing to proposals to reform U.S. patent law.
  • Fostering stronger K–12 technical and scientific education to increase student interest in those fields and reinforce their significance in the marketplace.
We should be ramping up incentives for innovation. Instead, the opposite is happening.

By taking these steps, engineering educators would be doing a great service not just for their research faculty and students but for the future.

Robert J. Kuntz, a licensed professional engineer, is president of the California Engineering Foundation.

 

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