Should the Government be Involved in Product Commercialization?

Some government research programs place a large emphasis on product development. At the same time, as government employees, we must be very careful not to appear to endorse any particular company or product.

How can we reconcile these two concepts?

One thing that probably doesn’t surprise you about being a government employee is that we have a responsibility to avoid endorsing (or even appearing to endorse) particular commercial products. This makes sense — if I were to hold a position of power and simultaneously endorse a product, this might unduly influence others to consider that product when they may not otherwise do so. Of course, that’s the whole purpose of endorsements, but it’s probably not the best use of our positions as civil servants.

Yet at the same time that we are required to include disclaimers on publications that state that my department does not endorse any of the products mentioned therein, there has been increasing pressure in recent years to develop products that can be sold commercially. This practice has become blatant enough in some government research programs that I’ve been told that certain aspects of my performance standards will be waived if I successfully file a patent or commercialize a product.

While this sounds like a great incentive, sometimes important research doesn’t lead to knowledge that can be developed immediately into viable products. For example, the discovery of the DNA structure as a double-helix was achieved for the sake of the knowledge itself and not with any product development in mind. It took years of building on this vital contribution of knowledge to the field before any technologies were developed that took advantage of this finding. So why are agencies pushing employees so hard into product development?

I suspect that there’s a simple answer, and it’s what makes the world go ‘round: money. I believe that some agencies are instituting product development initiatives in order to recoup R & D costs. If research conducted within the walls of a government lab leads to something that can be patented and licensed to industry, the government stands to gain revenue from licensing fees.

And yet it’s hard to not feel that this is, in a way, selling out. At its core, scientific research is about seeking truth, not making money. It’s about knowledge, not about products. Yes, of course private companies employ vast R & D teams with the sole intention of developing products for commercialization, but the purpose of a company is different from the purpose of a government agency: the purpose of a company is to make money. The purpose of a government agency is to benefit the general public. In addition, companies are upfront about their intentions to develop revenue-generating products, but is the function of government the same?

I would argue that it’s actually distancing oneself from product development that allows one to be a completely objective, unbiased researcher. The reason that drug companies do double-blind studies is to eliminate both conscious and unconscious bias. Shouldn’t we be doing the same in our government research labs instead of encouraging researchers to be pulling for their own product? And if the government can’t lead the way in unbiased research, who is left that can? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Erica Bakota is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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