Sunday, February 14, 2010

Question for my readers who are in academia

I've been reading about the scientist who shot several members of her department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The Wall Street Journal article linked above says, in part, "According to a 2006 profile in the Huntsville Times, Ms. Bishop and her husband invented a cell-growth incubator that promised to cut costs and maintenance involved in cell generation."

She had been at the University since 2003 and the president of her university said her invention would change the way biological research is conducted.

Regrettably, I'm no longer on a liberal arts campus, though I have a question in to a biologist about if she thinks that's the case.

But taking the UAH president at his word and assuming the idea was revolutionary, given that it was invented while Ms. Bishop worked at UAH, does that mean that it belongs to the University and that the University keeps all the potential profits from her idea even though they had just kicked her out the door?

Now THAT'S a motive for murder.



Transient and Permanent said...

It would depend on the exact nature of the intellectual property at the university and the contracts that she signed. But yes, in many (most?) cases today the university would own or co-own the rights to these inventions/innovations. My university (the University of Waterloo--in Canada but very much modeled on American tech/science intellectual property policies) for example would own the patent for this technology that she invented while at the university, even after she left for whatever reason.

John A Arkansawyer said...

Probably she had the typical deal most university employees get: A large slice of the royalties with the university handling the business end. Some places are more generous than others. I can't speak to UAH.

LinguistFriend said...

T&P and JAA are of course
correct based on their experience.
There are different situations. One of my former medical school research colleagues started a business manufacturing equipment based on his research, based a couple of towns away, selling the equipment worldwide, so that now he can afford to live in the same LA suburb as the MDs in the dept. Wrinkles of patent law could be an issue, as you know from your own experience.
What bothers me is that she did something which had major positive effects on her research field, but for whatever reason, that was not thought worthy of tenure. That would be maddening. Unfortunately I read that she had previously killed someone else; her prospects are not good.

Matt said...

She killed her brother in 1986 in Braintree MA with one of three shots fired from a gun at close range. The police eventually ruled it an accident.

It is not hard to guess that her past may have been a factor in her not getting tenure.

Joel Monka said...

here are the rules of the U of A concerning patents. As I read it, you have no rights other than those they choose to allow you.

According to this article , "The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching," said Dr. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. "You probably can't get another job."

I'm starting to wonder why we don't hear of such shootings every year.

TK K said...

At most universities, the university co-owns the patent for any/all discoveries, including those made subsequently that are based on research conducted at the university.

Profitable inventions are also profitable for the inventors, however.

One of my PhD committee members defined the promoter region in the human cytomeglovirus, which turned out to be incredibly strong. The "CMV-IE promoter" is used in most commercially produced plasmids, which are how you express all exogenous genes and thus proteins in most cells. Every time you transfect a dish of cells, he gets a nickel. The university probably gets a dime.

I don't know how much he made off it, but when you see a professor in Iowa driving a Maserati and retiring to his enormous Montana ranch, you can guess he did pretty well.

That said, the tenure process is sadistic. It's entirely based on how well you schmooze and barely, if any, on brainpower or accomplishments. Everyone in academia knows brilliant, productive, people who were good teachers and mentors but were screwed in the process because they pissed someone off five years before, and other mediocre minds who shmaltzed their tenure committee and didn't deserve it.

Not getting tenure is tantamount to destroying your career. Without tenure, you can't get grants, which means you can't pay students and postdocs, which means you can't publish, which means you can't get grants. During your last postdoc, you commit to a university as tenure track.

If you're derailed and don't get tenure, you're expected to leave within a year, and you can't get another job in a university because it's such a huge black mark on your record.

It's like going to Vegas and betting it all on red or black, and the roulette operator can screw you if you didn't kowtow properly in the past.

There are a lot of reasons why I did not go into academia, and the tenure process was right up there.

TK the Nuub

Chalicechick said...

(((It is not hard to guess that her past may have been a factor in her not getting tenure.)))

While there is plenty in this woman's past that implies, though does not prove, that she's a violent fruitcake, I don't know why the information on any of it would have been available to her tenure committee.


PG said...

Why wouldn't it have been available to the tenure committee? If you search her name in Google News Archives, this:

$2.95 - Boston Globe - NewsBank - Dec 8, 1986
Polio said that while Amy Bishop was handling the weapon, it discharged, wounding Seth Bishop. He was pronounced dead at 3:08 pm Saturday at Quincy City ...

comes up on the first page of results.

As for the unfairness of her work belonging to the university, I don't see how it's different from anyone else's work done on an employer's time, using the employer's resources. If I write a law article while a salaried employee and using my employer's LEXIS access, it's entirely possible that it will be published under a partner's name with me as secondary author at best. I don't own what I produce on their time.

hsofia said...

One thing that confuses me is why researcher is often conflated with professor. You can have an amazing mind but be a horrible teacher. So maybe she wasn't cut out for teaching? Couldn't she have gotten a job outside of academia? I don't know ... academia sounds like a sucky place.

But thank goodness not everyone who is left with dismal job prospects goes out shooting people.

Joel Monka said...

I don't know about her particular situation, but the university's published rules claim everything you think of as theirs, whether you use their facilities of not. From paragraph 3, my italics: "All faculty members and University employees, both while employed by the University and thereafter, shall report to the Patent Committee any invention or discovery which they have conceived or developed or which has been conceived or developed under their direction during their University employment." Paragraph 4 lists "(2) which is made by an employee of the University and which relates to the inventor's field of work at the University," separately from "(3) which has been developed in whole or in part by the utilization of University resources or facilities belonging to the University...". Is there any other way to read it than that they are claiming your concept whether or not you used their facilities?

Chalicechick said...

(((Why wouldn't it have been available to the tenure committee? ))

Because there's a lot of Amy Bishops around. And even if they ran her name through Google news and found that story and decided might be her, asking her "Are you the Amy Bishop who accidentally shot her brother?" still seems odd, particularly given that she wasn't convicted of anything.

I'm more interested in the fact that her old supervisor, whom one would assume they contacted, didn't mention his questions about her. Or maybe he did. Who knows?

As for the IP concerns, I do see where you're coming from, though I worked for Kinkos for a little while a long time ago and was unhappy to have to sign something that I interpreted to mean that the novel I was working on at night was their property. I signed it anyway, reasoning that it wasn't that good and it was unlikely that Kinkos would ever persue that.

Anyway, I'm guessing that muddying those waters is why she claims that she and her non-university-employee husband invented it together, though my impression from his interviews is that he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer so I'm kind of skeptical that he was that seriously involved in the process.


PG said...

"Because there's a lot of Amy Bishops around. And even if they ran her name through Google news and found that story and decided might be her"

You can tell pretty easily comparing her resume to the news story that it's her: the ages, locations, etc. match up. They could have dismissed it as unimportant because it was ruled an accident, but unless they don't bother running the most basic background check on people they're hiring, that fact shouldn't have been unknown to them.