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Technology Transfer and the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980

Universities and governmental agencies are by far the largest research and development machines in the United States; though it is often through the interaction of universities (or government agencies) and businesses that the public finally sees the benefits of research. Each entity brings a unique dynamic to the relationship; universities can easily form multidisciplinary relationships as well as work on basic research that has no immediate profit. On the other hand, businesses understand consumer needs and the barriers involved in taking a product to the marketplace.

Before 1980, the U.S. government retained all rights to university inventions created under federal funding. Businesses interested in using government patents were usually granted non-exclusive licenses, which their competitors could obtain as well. This created a low interest in technology transfer between the government and industry. The Bayh-Dole Act was enacted in 1980 (so named for its sponsorship in the senate by Birch Bayh and Bob Dole) to increase this technology transfer and thereby stimulate the economy. The act has allowed universities, small businesses, and non-profits the ability to patent inventions and techniques created under federal funding.

Universities now are able to generate income to fund their own research or other university endeavors. Universities make money through the issuing of exclusive patent use rights to businesses. Businesses make money by offering unique products. In the end, the government also makes money as well, through taxation of the new products created (as well as income tax from possible increased job employment through increased industry). The government also retains the right to protect the public interest through non-exclusive use of a patent.

Recently the Act has received some criticism. Critics are worried that there will be a cultural shift in universities away from basic research which has a lower profit value. Some businesses also complain that what is now being patented would have previously been given freely and that it should be given freely since the research is funded through taxes. Whatever the case, it can’t be denied that this act has greatly increased the transfer of technology from universities to businesses. It also offers a powerful case study on how the dynamics of law and business can effect commercial scientific development.


NASA and the Evolution of the Swimsuit

So far, Michael Phelps has won an amazing six gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Phelps and fellow US teammates have sworn by their sponsor, Speedo, and their brand new swimsuit line, the Speedo LZR Racer. It is being marketed as “the fastest swimsuit in the world” and has indeed sparked controversy based on its ability to vastly “outperform” other suits.

And how does one swimsuit outperform another exactly? Well the LZR was designed to have the lowest water friction drag while compressing the swimmer’s body into a smoother aqua-dynamic shape without restricting the range of body movement available. More specifically, the seams are “ultrasonically bonded” to ensure a fully smooth surface area while still lightweight and water-repellent. The fabric is being marketed under a special proprietary name, the Speedo Pulse fabric. It has been designed to “reduce muscle oscillation and skin vibration through powerful compression” (from the Speedo website). A corset like core is designed into the suit to support an optimum swimming posture while worn. Unlike the regular fashion suits seen in stores that hang flat on the hangers, these suits were designed in 3-D and still have the body shape when not worn so as to mimic a second skin. The suit is so tight and thin that it can take swimmers over thirty minutes just to put it on!

It was developed with the help of NASA; an obvious choice due to its’ decades-long history of wind tunnel friction research for spacecraft. NASA specifically tested over sixty types of potential fabrics to determine the one with the lowest drag. Speedo also collaborated with the Australian Institute of Sport and the University of Otago in New Zealand for testing of other components for the suit.

This is not the first time NASA’s space research has made waves in the evolution of competition swimming. In the early 1980s Langley Research Center was researching a way to minimize air drag on plane surfaces when it developed the Riblet. A Riblet is a tiny groove in the external material of the plane (or swimsuit). If Riblets are placed over the most turbulent areas of the object it can significantly alter the turbulence experienced. In 1996 a company named Arena North America developed the ribbed swimsuit based on this concept and placed riblets in the chest and buttocks areas of the swimsuit. Upon testing, it was shown to be over ten percent faster than any other swimsuit types previously developed at the time.

This technology has also been used for other non-aerospace or aquatic uses (to line pipes and ducts) and is a great example of scientific research’s utility for the general public.


Miller's Experiment on How Life Began

In 1953 Stanley Miller (a graduate student at University of Chicago) convinced his advisor, Harold Urey, to go along with an experiment simulating how life arose on Earth. Miller created a closed system in which he mimicked the early Earth environment (or, what they had believed it to be back then). This concoction consisted of ammonia, methane, hydrogen gas, and water vapor. He next sent electric charges through the system to simulate lightning storms (also thought to be common on prehistoric Earth). After a few days Miller noticed that the consistency of the mixture had changed and now a brown gooey substance was present all over the inside of his reaction vessel. This goo was found to contain amino acids which are vital in the creation of proteins, a key component to life. Miller had just shown the first step to the creation of life!

Of course it does not necessarily get simpler from here on out. How could these amino acids aggregate to form a larger complex molecule which would eventually (after many steps in time) develop into an organized cell? No one knows. It is believed to be a long process, possibly full of random catalyzing events (such as a lightning storm) for which the results of which culminate in an organized cell.

Miller’s experiment soon became very famous in the debate of how life arose on Earth. Since then, many contradicting theories about what the early Earth environment was like (was it a soupy marsh? Dry, windy, and hot? Rocky, not wet?) have developed, for which none are the clear answer. It is obvious that we will not be able to solve this great mystery without certainty about the early Earth environment. But no matter what the early Earth environment consisted of, there must have been the process - the process from amino acid to replicating molecule to organized cell, which is another fascinating leap itself.

Miller's Setup (NASA)


Creation of the Northern and Southern Lights Revealed

The intense burning heat of the Sun constantly showers the Earth with a downpour of free electrons and positive ions (called the solar wind). The Earth is protected from this in part by its magnetosphere, a region in space experiencing a strong magnetic field. Physicists speak of this region as having magnetic field "lines" so as to more easily explain its properties. These lines are used conceptually to represent the forces and energies that make up and interact with the magnetic fields; similar to how a topographical map is filled with lines whose inter-distances represent land mass height.

The magnetosphere stores energy from the solar wind and swells larger with increasing energy storage. As it swells outwards, the gap between the magnetic field lines (conceptually) lessens and soon a critical point is reached where the two lines reconnect. When this limit is surpassed, the charged particles are sent flying back towards Earth where they collide with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere creating beautiful light shows. The color of light created corresponds with the types of atoms excited; atomic oxygen can create green and red displays while molecular and ionic nitrogen produce colors in the low red to high blue/violet range.

On February 26, 2008 the 5 NASA THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) satellites were aligned along the equator when an instance of Aurora Borealis began. While the satellites took measurements from space, 20 ground observatories recorded the Northern Lights along with the bombardment of particles into the atmosphere. These findings provide the first simultaneous space and ground measurements of substorm beginnings, showing magnetic reconnection as the cause.

See NASA's article here.


Underwater Walking Octopuses

Published in the March 25, 2005 issue of Science is the first discovery of a soft-bodied animal to walk on two limbs.

Researchers at U.C. Berkeley discovered two types of small octopuses walking along the ocean floor. These octopuses used their back pair of legs to slowly retreat backwards away from predators. The remaining six arms were held up around the octopus to disguise it as either a coconut or a clump of floating algae, allowing the octopus to slowly back away camouflaged and facing the predator. Generally, octopuses crawl along the ocean floor through the pushing and pulling of all or most of their eight arms.

Robert Full, coauthor on the paper, believes that the octopuses are able to perform these sophisticated movements as reflexes through the autonomous nerve control available in each individual arm. He hopes that continued study on the underlying mechanics will influence the field of soft robotics.

DARPA has funded research in soft robotics in an effort to create soft-bodied biodegradable robots capable of dramatic shape shifting in order to navigate complex environments such as small cracks in buildings.

 


Fishy Evolutionary Puzzle Solved!

Flatfish

Ever since their discovery, flatfish have baffled scientists with their unique anatomy and lifestyle. They live as bottom feeders, lying flat on their side on the sea floor. For many types of flatfish, their top side is camouflaged to fit their surroundings while their bottom side is pale or has an underdeveloped fin. Another shocking component of the flatfish is that the hair cells in the inner ear, which are responsible for keeping balance, are rotated so that swimming sideways feels natural. The most shocking feature of flatfish though is their asymmetric eye structure. Young flatfish have normally placed eyes, on each side of their head but as they mature into adulthood, one eye migrates to the opposite side. As a result of this, they are among one of the few examples of asymmetry in vertebrates. All of these anatomical components are extremely advantageous to the fish’s lifestyle, aiding in their ability to catch smaller fish by blending easily into the deep sea environment.

Previously, no fish with an intermediate eye placement had been discovered, either alive or dead. Due to this, flatfish have fueled significant evolutionary debate. Creationists have insisted that the lack of an intermediary form is evidence against evolution and for intelligent design. They have used this example to insist that a higher power intentionally (and instantly) created flatfish.

Matt Friedman, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, has recently published an article in the journal Nature that possibly solves this evolutionary puzzle. While glancing through fossil records dating back 45 million years, he recognized early forms of the flatfish that had been previously overlooked (named Heteronectes and Amphistium). Using CT scanning technology, he scanned the bone structure around the eyes. Both fossils cited in the study had incomplete eye migration, so that one of the eyes had migrated but did not reach the opposite side of the head. The CT scans also confirmed the mature ages of the fish due to their size and bone density. The images showed an absence of damage or deformity, ruling them out as causes of the intermediary eye location. These fossils suggest a gradual evolutionary adaptation for the eye migration of the fish and are evidence against a sudden species appearance or change.

Famous creationist Frank Sherwin found this finding “underwhelming”.





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