One of the chief researchers at the University of Idaho whose ties to two private companies were criticized by auditors says he and others were subjected to a “public tar-and-feathering” that will discourage economic development arising from university research.
Until last summer, Jody Gambles was a researcher at the Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research in Post Falls. He was also one of the owners, along with center director Gary Maki, of a private company that marketed CAMBR research and shared profits with employees at the center.
The Dec. 7, 2005, audit cited several conflicts of interest involved in the relationship. The UI put a halt to the profit sharing and implemented a variety of other changes to improve internal controls. The audit was released Monday after a public records request from The Spokesman-Review.
In an interview this week, Gambles said that while the audit identified some bookkeeping problems, CAMBR had disclosed its relationship with the company and charged it rent, and its employees didn’t improperly benefit or use public resources in pursuit of financial gain. He said it’s not improper for researchers to own stock or have financial interests in a related company, as long as such relationships are fully disclosed.
Such relationships are inevitable, he said, if universities are to participate in technology transfer – the spinoff of research into patents and startup businesses. Like a lot of research universities, the UI encourages its scientists to look for tech transfer opportunities, partly as a way to bring in revenues for the school and inventors.
Gambles said the UI is still shell-shocked over the problems from its University Place project, a troubled attempt to expand in Boise that raised a host of conflict of interest problems among the university, its fundraising foundation, its attorneys and others. That project largely fell apart in 2002, and the fallout led to job cuts and financial difficulties throughout the university.
“The primary mind-set at the University of Idaho today has remained rooted in the Boise project, having gone through a situation where they had to sue their own attorneys over conflict of interest issues,” he said. “They now seem to have the position that no conflict of interest can be managed.”
That has “paralyzed the ability to do tech transfer” at the UI, he said.
UI President Tim White agreed Friday that tech transfer requires relationships between private companies and researchers that can include stock ownership and profit sharing. But he said such relationships must be properly managed, including full disclosure, and that they weren’t in the case of CAMBR.
“What the audit discovered was that the relationships weren’t being managed properly,” he said. “You can’t use the public dollar … to give an unfair advantage to a private corporation.”
UI auditors said that CAMBR employees had “numerous disclosed and non-disclosed conflicts of interest which contributed to misuse of University facilities, equipment and personnel to further private business interests.”
The audit noted that a full-time CAMBR employee was also being paid $20,000 by the company, ICs LLC; that the company had received testing services it had not paid for; and that CAMBR employees used university resources for travel, hotel rooms and other personal uses.
Maki, the director of the center and longtime leader of research efforts into microelectronics and tiny computer chips, said he could not comment at the direction of the UI administration. His research on microelectronics began in the 1980s and included stints at the UI, University of New Mexico, and UI again.
Gambles said he resigned last summer, largely because he had another opportunity but partly because of the fallout at the university over the issues raised in the audit. He’s now in New Mexico and is still affiliated with ICs.
He said CAMBR employees were not abusing the public trust to enrich themselves – ICs paid no salary to him or Maki, and the annual profit-sharing payments ranged from nothing to a high of perhaps $6,000.
A former UI chief financial officer involved with the startup of ICs wrote a letter to the university after the audit was completed. The Feb. 8 letter from David McKinney, who is now retired, argued that the creation of the company fulfilled an important mission by creating a way to provide the microchips invented at CAMBR for crucial government use, such as NASA satellite missions.
McKinney, who noted Friday that he hadn’t seen the audit, said that in general, allowing researchers to make some money off their innovations is a way to keep high-quality scientists at the UI. Without such an arrangement, he questioned whether Maki and CAMBR would still be at the UI.
Gambles said ICs did not spend time trying to market chips and just awaited orders that came from government sources. He also said that while he could imagine other circumstances in which researchers might skew results to enrich themselves, in the case of the microchip research, researchers would have no motivation to do anything other than create the best chip – the goal of both the university and company.
He said he felt that CAMBR – which the UI had aggressively recruited to come to the Post Falls research park in 2002 – had done what was expected of it and then punished.
“Do your job well and be persecuted for it?” he wrote in an e-mail. “As a researcher, inventor, and entrepreneur this former CAMBR employee today finds himself back in New Mexico. The current environment at UI simply does not support what we were all brought there for.”