These days many research universities are constantly looking for new grant competitions and encouraging their faculty members to apply. On Friday, the University of California at Los Angeles took the unusual step of telling professors not to apply to a major new grant competition from a pharmaceutical company, saying that the program violated university rules.
An e-mail marked "urgent" was sent Friday to all faculty members and deans about the Discovery Fast Track Competition, which was just announced this month and for which the sponsor -- GlaxoSmithKline -- is approaching faculty members directly, bypassing technology transfer offices at universities.
The company announced that the program was an attempt to reward academic researchers by offering a "fast track" to financing their most creative ideas. Faculty members are invited to submit short proposals and promised a quick decision later this year, leading to funding. The news release  announcing the program this month said that grants would start promptly, without contract negotiations between the company, the researchers or their universities.
"To avoid initial contract negotiations, which are often perceived as the biggest bottleneck in the pharma/academia collaborative process, the [GlaxoSmithKline] team conceived the Discovery Fast Track competition as a means to rapidly identify and screen the most promising hypotheses in academia," it said.
Faculty members just started to receive invitations last week, and when UCLA officials saw the terms of the proposed agreement, they took a step they have not taken previously -- and told the entire campus not to apply.
"Please be advised that the terms and conditions do not adhere to UC policy because faculty have prior and ongoing obligations under the patent policy to disclose all discoveries to the university and have assigned patent rights to the university. Participation in the GSK competition would violate these policies and obligations," said the e-mail, from James S. Economou, vice chancellor for research, and Brendan J. Rauw, associate vice chancellor for research and executive director of entrepreneurship.
In an interview, Rauw said that most proposals for corporate support for faculty members are coordinated through the university, which can negotiate terms consistent with university rules. He said that there was an inherent problem in a company saying that there could be no contract negotiations. Further, Rauw said that faculty members were being asked to give away rights they didn't necessarily have (since the university has rules both for sharing intellectual property and assuring that agreements are consistent with academic principles). He also said that the phrasing of the grant proposal suggested that "background IP" from past work might be covered -- even though it was not clear the company was entitled to those rights.
"This opens up our entire portfolio to a pharma company with no guarantee that our rights will be protected," he said.
Rauw said UCLA faculty members may be among the first to have received the invitations. When he conferred with colleagues on other UC campuses last week, they had yet to receive grant details.
He noted that there has been "a perception" that universities "have given too much away" when dealing with pharmaceutical companies. Rauw said that UCLA has approved of grant relationships between GlaxoSmithKline and faculty members in the past (without problems), and that UCLA has reached out to the company to talk about how rules might be changed so that faculty members could participate.
"This is a challenging situation for us," he said. "We are trying as a university to be open for industry and find opportunities for increased collaboration. But there is a balance there. We had to make a decision that this went too far."
A spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline Friday said via e-mail Monday that she couldn't comment on the UCLA concerns directly, but that the program was "designed to balance the playing field and avoid early IP contract negotiations, which can be the biggest obstacle to collaborative drug discovery." She added that "there may be situations where initial interpretation of the Discovery Fast Track terms & conditions ... will preclude some technology transfer officers from allowing researchers affiliated with their institution to participate," but that she hoped university officials would "make a determined effort to read the competition documents ... in detail before coming to a conclusion as to the provisions of these documents and competition outcomes."