Faculty should take ownership of projects

When the University of California, San Diego filed a lawsuit against USC forbidding the former director of their Alzheimer’s study, Dr. Paul Aisen, from taking his research program when he relocated to USC, it asserted its right as a research institution. It insinuated that Dr. Aisen should surrender the ownership of his research to the institution in which the research is conducted. But when students enter the world of academia, they are instructed on the ethics of research and intellectual property. Stealing an idea, project or experimental result from another student is no different from stealing a book or a phone. If students are forced to practice these principles, then colleges such as UCSD should apply the same code of ethics by loosening their grip on researchers’ projects and allowing freedom of ownership in academia.

When UCSD lost 8 of its 10 sponsors — which were worth approximately $93.5 million — to USC, it was unlikely that they could continue to support their Alzheimer’s program, a clinical study with critical implications for our nation’s health. In the next 50 years, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease will be a colossal burden on humanity as we are faced with an aging population. In 2007, a group at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study projecting that the incidence of Alzheimer’s will quadruple to 1 in 85 persons worldwide by 2050. The same study also stated that an intervention to delay the onset by just one year would create nearly 9.2 million fewer cases of the disease in 2050. Because of UCSD’s financial setbacks, Aisen chose to relocate his project to USC, where the vital study could prosper under a better-funded institution.

UCSD’s hostile reaction to Aisen’s move was uncalled for, particularly since failing to relocate the program would have put the project in jeopardy. Rather than respect the director’s decision, the university lashed out against Aisen. One professor at UCSD even threatened to “have Dr. Aisen arrested, put in jail and his medical license suspended,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. But such a response is indicative of a greater menacing environment in which science cannot thrive. Moreover, this animosity sets a poor example toward students. An institution cannot preach academic integrity while failing to put its words to practice.

UCSD’s repossession of Aisen’s project represents a distorted ethical practice. UCSD claimed that Aisen “illegally seized control of data and computer systems that belong to UC San Diego,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. In fact, the project Aisen brought to Los Angeles was his own — it was UCSD that first stole the project from him. A university should not enforce a code of ethics forbidding plagiarism and stealing of intellectual property if it does not practice these laws itself. Students across the country face strict penalties for violating this code, and rightly so.

In a study as important as this, such a move will have unprecedented consequences. In an email to the Los Angeles Times, Aisen reacted to UCSD’s case saying, “We all lose here. Science and public health lose when research is torn from the investigators with the passion, knowledge and skill to assure its success.”

College students are taught the importance of attributing words or an idea to their creator. By claiming that it owned the entire Alzheimer’s study, UCSD disregarded Aisen’s role as a leader of the project and failed to uphold this golden rule in academia. When UCSD won its court case against Aisen and USC, taking possession of much of Aisen’s project, it drove a wedge between science and the scientist.

5 replies
  1. Daniel Lee
    Daniel Lee says:

    The claims made by this article are so wrong it is almost comedic. First of all you need to know how IP contracts work between an employer and employee. Do you think that if you lead a research team at Microsoft, you are allowed to take “your” work to Google just because you decided that it was time to switch employers? Another question: what if “your” research was actually built on investments and research at the expense of your old institution. Obviously you can’t just brush off the fact that the old institution has a large, if not complete, ownership of the research you’ve performed. As an employee of UCSD, Aisen was hired to manage a study that UCSD already had under its possession. Knowing just this fact itself already breaks the foundation of all your arguments in this article. You make the naive assumption that the ownership was Aisen’s and his alone, and this is conveniently repeated throughout your article when in fact it is pretty inaccurate. Don’t just blindly take the side of your alma mater and actually DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH, a problem USC seems to be having. Otherwise you can just follow in your alma mater’s footsteps and pay for research already conducted.

    • Varadarajan Ravindran
      Varadarajan Ravindran says:

      There is one aspect that you are ignoring. Eight out of the ten sponsors stated that they have more confidence in USC than UCSD to continue the Alzheimer’s study. As a university, USC is able to obtain good private funding while UCSD depends mostly on to government funding.

      • Daniel Lee
        Daniel Lee says:

        First of all this is a non-sequitur and doesn’t address what I’ve talked about already. We were talking about IP ownership and you’re bringing something up something entirely different. Just because Google is better than Microsoft at internet search, does that give them the right to all of Microsoft’s research into search? No. Obviously not.

        Second, do you research. These sponsors had more confidence AFTER USC took the whole research group from UCSD (How USC managed to bully and threatened UCSD faculty into joining USC is another story entirely). OBVIOUSLY the sponsors would say that USC has the capacity to continue the research … because USC took all the resources needed to maintain the research from UCSD (which is why UCSD sued USC btw). Would they have sided with USC before the group left for USC? Probably not. Thank you for pointing this out Varadarajan because USC likes to flout this piece of information which is both very misleading and allows for an easy mental shortcut for people not aware of what is going on.

        • Varadarajan Ravindran
          Varadarajan Ravindran says:

          Professor Paul Aisen brought in the research money to UCSD, and he chose to leave the institution. The data collected and the intellectual property belongs to UCSD with Dr. Aisen as a prime inventor. I am aware of all these factors, and yet the sponsors of present and prospective fundign have more confidence in USC than on UCSD. I have also gone to school at the University of California system. These universities are perceived as heavily funded state universities; and it is often teh case, that they are used to delivering results at high costs.

          • MIchael
            MIchael says:

            There is a fundamental issue in biological sciences that does not follow the Google or Microsoft model and that is intellectual right to knowledge generated by a PI. In the case of one being hired by a major software company to “solve a problem”using a specific set of tools, resources, and personnel as well as pre-signed documents (MTAs and rights to discovery for example) results in protecting a company to retain all generated data, findings, and property. Thus they are in a position to block an employee from leaving to work on a similar project and in the case of some higher executives can block employment all together. In biology especially in the academic realm the PI generally holds all the intellectual rights. They may be in a position to negotiate a sharing of any financial income that may come from licensing for example. What is also often the case is the the general idea of a research program comes from a PI or set of PI’s submitting a grant, usually to a federal agency, and obtaining the support to carryout the proposed studies. In most cases the hosting institution is very interested in the overhead which can range from 60 to 70%, which means for every $100,000 obtained to support the research the institution gets $70,000. The federal agency sends a total of $170,000. When a PI leaves a institution for another they take their grants with them with permission of the funding agency, which is not always difficult to secure. A major problem is UCSD now has lost the indirects, lost funds that support core facilities, and these are gained by the new hosting institution. Co-investigators can simply express their support of such a shift but it is really the funding agency and its support that is needed. Dr. Aisen has full intellectual rights to his data and should be able to take it with him. This is standard in biological and academic sciences for the last 100 years. UCSD has made a claim that it is an issue of protecting the data and the research when in fact it is most likely the need to retain the indirect costs, which are substantial of course. We do not know exactly unless we can look into the financial souls of the UCSD regents but it appears so. The fact that investigators switch institutions is not new. In a time when there was lots of federal funding no one really cared. Now in an era of tight budgets, very limited support from federal support, and the high cost of big science and expensive facilities in academic institutions, it has become an issue. Of course now as we move forward it is anticipated that academic investigators and their host institutions will be “lawyering up” at some cost both financially and intellectually. Gone are the good old days when scientists did amazing discoveries on shoe-string budgets. Rutherford’s model of the electron was based on an experiment that cost about 100 pounds in 1910 (maybe a few thousand now). A 100 pounds (or Euros) will only buy dinner for 3 (without wine) at the CERN supercollider dining hall in Switzerland; but that story is for another day.

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