Solving the patent problem: Cognition, communication, and the National Academy of Sciences in the evolution of university patent policy, 1917–1966

Jane E Robbins, University of Pennsylvania


Though widely accepted in universities today, the practice of patenting science is not without its critics and conflicts. Two questions overarching contemporary concerns are whether patenting is inhibiting rather fostering scientific progress, largely due to secrecy, financial conflict, and the costs and difficulty of accessing research tools; and whether universities are at risk of losing their status as sources of independent research and disseminators of knowledge. Many researchers trace the explosion of patenting and its attendant conflicts to the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. But while university patenting has grown exponentially since 1980, this view deterministically assigns a cause-effect relationship between legislation and university behavior and offers a “snapshot” neo-institutionalist view of the cultural-cognitive make-up of universities. This dissertation inquires into the circumstances that led to both the institutionalization of and the contestation over university patenting. Several important patent committees of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, a network hub between universities, government, and industry, provide the lens for a field-level analysis of university patent development. Using a cognitive history approach that rejoins old and new institutional approaches and expands the latter with cognitive analysis, it traces the process of thinking and deciding about university patents in the context of the political and economic pressures of the time. In so doing, it addresses recent critiques of institutional analysis as neglectful of people and process, and offers a more robust approach to understanding change, particularly the seeds of isomorphism. Today's concerns are not attributable to Bayh-Dole. Rather, beginning early in the 20th century, a strategic campaign was mounted to persuade university administrators of the merits of patent control, despite deep divisions among scientists. Driving this campaign were goals of preserving private control over research; a search for new avenues of industrial growth; and a desire to limit transaction costs and competition in recognition of the growing interdependence of research findings in a changing world of science.

Subject Area

Higher education|Management

Recommended Citation

Robbins, Jane E, "Solving the patent problem: Cognition, communication, and the National Academy of Sciences in the evolution of university patent policy, 1917–1966" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125890.