Thursday, August 11, 2022

Patents As Yardstick For Career Progression In Knowledge Institutions

Raymond Ogbu
Raymond Ogbu

Human creativity and ingenuity are well appreciated, acknowledged and rewarded, but there exist several lacunae leading to intellectual property rights (IPR) violations. The IP infringements were high and went on in some climes especially the third-world countries without much restriction. However, over time, the significance of protection of these works of human intellect called “intellectual property” became obvious, hence the urgent need to patent them.

For a proper understanding of the subject matter, a patent is a right granted to an inventor for a technical invention by the government, permitting him or her to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a certain period. Essentially, a patent excludes others from exploiting the patented invention for 20 years, depending on the country of origin. The exclusive right enables the patent owner to recoup development costs and obtain a return on investment in the development of the patented invention/technology.

Patents may be granted by national patent offices or by regional offices that work for several countries, such as the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), the European Patent Office (EPO), the Eurasian Patent Office (EAPO) etc.  Under such regional systems, an applicant requests protection for the invention in one or more countries within the region to avoid duplication of financial and human resources. After the grant of the regional patent, the requirement to furnish a translation in the official language of the country and to pay annual fees, to validate and maintain the patent is important.  The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) administered the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which provides for the filing of a single international patent application which has the effect of as many national applications as countries are designated in the PCT application. After a so-called international phase during which the application is searched, published and at the applicant’s request, also examined as to substance, the applicant must decide which national and regional offices he wants to proceed to obtain a patent.

In the developed countries of Europe and America, the number of patents coming out of the knowledge institutions is enormous, such that most universities in these developed countries are self-sustaining, not depending on subventions or budgetary allocations from their government.

In 1992, Herb Richardson, a chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, spearheaded an effort to create an office of technology transfer, having in mind to replicate a success story at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He pulled together several fledgling efforts in technology transfer and created the Technology Licensing Office, a centralised office to manage the intellectual property of 18 universities and state agencies made up of the A&M System. In the four years following the creation of the Technology Licensing Office, royalties realised exceeded $3 million. Ten years later, the amount tripled. This is the impact of intellectual property development and protection. The R&D results that were licensed by Texas A&M University could not have attracted any entrepreneur if they were not protected through patents. This is what is practicable in developed countries where intellectual property protection has taken the center stage in striving for a sustainable economy.

This is why some countries are often referred to as ‘developed’ countries while others are classified as ‘underdeveloped’.  In ‘developed’ countries, the levels of infrastructure-cum socioeconomic development of such are orchestrated by the huge amount of patented and research and development (R&D) results worth commercialising emanating from such countries.

Unlike the developed continents, Africa has remained a dumping ground for products and services coming from these developed countries, owing to her poor intellectual property culture.

To move the country from being a mere technology consumer to a major player in the technology global market, the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), assisted by the WIPO in 2006 kick-started the establishment of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer Offices (IPTTOs) in some first-generation Nigerian knowledge institutions to trigger awareness on the importance of IPR protection. The programme was aimed at sensitising and refocusing the minds of Nigerian researchers towards engaging in demand-driven research rather than embarking on conventional research for career progression.

The establishment of IPTTOs has no doubt triggered market and demand-driven research to such a level that universities and research establishments have started getting marketable patents from their R&D results. Currently, some are at the stage of commercialisation. Previously in Nigeria, the process of obtaining a patent was rigorous but, with the efforts and dynamic leadership of the current director-general of NOTAP, Dr. DanAzumi Mohammed Ibrahim, in close partnership with the chief registrar, trademark, patents and designs registry, Mrs. Stella Ezenduka, the situation is changing. NOTAP has secured over 300 patent certificates for both public and private establishments within the last seven years, for free. Topping the list among agencies and private researchers that have been assisted by NOTAP in obtaining patents is the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO), Lagos with over 15 patent certificates in its kit. This is followed by Covenant University Otta with about seven patent certificates and Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT).

In Africa, the protection of intellectual property through patenting has not been fully accepted in the universities for fear of losing the invention after disclosure, coupled with the earlier orientation of ‘publish or perish’. University researchers carried out research works for publishing peer-review papers, being cited and then getting promoted. Their research was not focused on solving human or industrial needs unlike their counterparts in the western world. No wonder universities consistently rank higher in the global ranking of the universities in the world.  There is statistical evidence that Universities in developed countries are self-sustaining, based on the number of patents they license to the industry for royalty payment.

A one-time Iranian minister of industry, Mr. Macfarlane, suggested that the disbursing of research grants to universities should be decided based on the number of patents generated rather than the number of academic papers published. According to him, this was something other (developed) countries were already doing and he was more interested in producing jobs through the commercialisation of R&D results than producing papers.

It is therefore my considered view that aside from considering the number of patents a researcher had been granted before offering research grants to him or her, it is also pertinent that knowledge institutions within the Continent of Africa, use the number of patents as a serious yardstick for promotion and career progression of researchers. Yes, as much as the publication of books and peer-reviewed papers are important in a research community, global emphasis has shifted from resource to knowledge-based economy, therefore patents should be encouraged and promoted in academic environments as it will seamlessly, trigger market-driven research for the economic sustainability of the continent.

This postulation is also supported by the PNAS Highlight Newsletter of Washington DC titled “Changing the academic culture; Valuing patents and commercialisation towards tenure and career advancement”. According to the report, it is believed that there is national and international recognition for the importance of innovation and technology transfer for sustained economic revival though the owners of these innovations or researchers are not adequately rewarded. It is the position of the authors that universities should as a way of reward system expand their criteria to treat patents, licensing and commercialisation activities by faculties as important considerations for merit, tenure and career advancement. This is certainly a clarion call to Nigerian and, indeed, the other African countries’ knowledge institutions to consider patents very seriously in the evaluation of contributions of the academies for a proper reward system through promotion.

Raymond Ogbu wrote in from the public relations and protocol unit of the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion. He can be reached on roy_umenyi@yahoo.com.

Raymond Ogbu
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