Rewarding Academic Innovation

Science Magazine
Paul R. Sanberg, Judy Genshaft, Sudeep Sarkar
21 Nov 2014

We could not agree more with the conclusion of the 10 October Editorial (“Five years of translation,” K. L. Kelner and M. McNutt, p. 145) that “[a]s a science community, we should be creating more opportunities for facilitating the transfer of science in the service of society.” One way to accomplish this is to recognize performance through honors and awards, which can motivate faculty to get involved in patenting and commercialization activities by providing peer validation and recognition (13). Unfortunately, the awards landscape for the academic inventor is sparse. As pointed out by D. Normile (“Physicists change the light bulb,” In Depth, 10 October, p. 149), it was very surprising to see the Nobel Prize for Physics awarded for an invention rather than for basic discovery. We hope the future brings more such awards.

The National Research Council recently compiled an extensive list of faculty awards and honors (4). Of the nearly 1500 awards and honors listed, fewer than a dozen can be stretched to recognize and reward excellence in academic invention and technology transfer specifically. For the most accomplished academic inventors, there are avenues for national-level recognition, such as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the newly instituted AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors program (5). However, these awards touch very few academic inventors annually.

The National Academy of Inventors (NAI) Fellows program provides an award open to a larger number of academic inventors than the awards listed above. The NAI defines Fellow status as “a high professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.” At the end of its second year, the NAI Fellows consisted of 244 academic inventors worldwide who collectively hold more than 9000 issued U.S. patents and represent 216 universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutions. These fellows are recognized by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) at an annual ceremony, listed on plaques displayed at USPTO headquarters, and recorded each year in the Congressional Record of the U.S. House of Representatives (6).

In addition to recognizing individual faculty members, we need to recognize and celebrate best practices at institutions. Recognizing this, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities recently created the Innovation and Economic Prosperity designation (7) “to recognize universities that are leaders in spurring and promoting regional economic development.” These kinds of peer recognition help build institutional confidence and provide models for others to follow as universities respond to societal demands to play a more central role in economic development.