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The Black Hole

A call for widespread adoption of universal MTAs

The current process for material transfer agreements involves way too much paperwork and puts unnecessary stress on both researchers and technology transfer offices.


When academics share things (e.g. tools, reagents) with each other, it is rarely because they want to get rich. This is because the vast majority of what is shared cannot be commercialized and secondly, even if they could be, they would not make much money anyway. However, the current process to approve material transfer agreements treats every single request as a billion-dollar opportunity. I am sure we all have a story of an academic who didn’t realize the commercial potential of the tool they created, but it seems that the pendulum has swung quite far in the other direction, resulting in an abundance of paperwork for things that used to just get carried between academic labs in the equivalent of someone’s shirt pocket. I’m not suggesting we revert to the latter, but instead think that academic institutions need to develop a response that is proportional to the risk.

A colleague of mine recently posted on Twitter, underscoring the impact that such excessive paperwork can have:

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating than having all the people, resources and money in place to undertake a project and being unable to start because the paperwork has not been sorted out yet. When the delay is a few days, weeks or even a month, this lag is quickly forgotten, but when delays drag on over several months and sometimes years, the frustration grows and sometimes projects completely fall apart. This creates highly undesirable and unnecessary tension between researchers and their contracts or technology transfer offices (the people who generally prepare and sign MTAs for researchers). What researchers rarely consider is the position of the contracts officers, who find themselves in an equally tough predicament of trying to be helpful to researchers while protecting the interests of the institution. An unfortunate side effect is that the loudest and most harassing researchers are the ones who get the most attention, creating a really unpleasant work environment for the people dealing with the agreements. While we have recently begun identifying bullies in academia with respect to senior/junior scientist relationships, the wider impact of such bullying behaviour is rarely discussed in the context of other university support staff and can get quite nasty.

Triaging: a critical component

The delays that exist are typically because the staff/system is overwhelmed by requests. This is a common refrain in U.K. universities – at any given time, hundreds to thousands of agreements are in various stages of completion and often only a handful of staff are there to deal with the mountain of work. Whenever a system is overwhelmed, it needs effective triaging to put the most difficult jobs through to the most experienced people and get as many jobs completed as possible using the time and resources available. In the case of MTAs and legal agreements at universities, this can be handled in several ways.

For example, a number of universities remove the pressure from their contracts teams by allowing senior departmental or faculty staff members to sign off on standardized template agreements without engaging with any sort of contracts officer and simply reporting that such agreements have been made. This will often avoid an MTA request sitting in someone’s inbox while they are dealing with the “serious stuff.”

Another example would be to have a quick assessment of the riskiness of a particular MTA. In a paper published by PLoS One in 2015, Tania Bubela et al., argue that “in most cases in pre-competitive research, a simple agreement would suffice; the more complex agreements and mechanisms for their negotiation should be reserved for cases where the risks posed to the institution and the potential commercial value of the research reagents is high.”

Indeed, this appears to be the goal of several efforts in the past couple of decades, including the Uniform Biological Material Transfer Agreement which has been accepted by a wide range of institutions to try to hasten the process. Such template agreements can allow institutions to act quickly on some easy agreements and leave the contracts office to deal with the heavier lifting. But how do we decide which MTAs need altering or further customization?

Here, Dr. Bubela’s paper suggests a “complex” process should be triggered in these instances:

  • any transfer of materials to industry partners
  • for materials that will be used in clinical or commercial development

In principle, this seems sensible, but it is also a substantial impediment to researchers trying to build bridges with industrial partners where negotiations to receive a reagent can take many months and sometimes years. This is not because the agreements are particularly complicated, but simply because there aren’t enough staff available to get to the point of reading and signing the documents. This concern extends to the legal agreements that allow researchers to enter into collaborations with industrial partners where receiving money to undertake work from an industrial partner is often considerably delayed as a result of getting the correct paperwork in place.

At the end of the day, we need to come up with systems that quickly assess the financial risk of sharing a particular tool or reagent and put a simple framework in place so that the vast majority of research tools and ideas can flow freely between academics and, in some cases, industry partners. The reduced workload on contracts offices would be welcomed from all sides and the savings made here would probably cover the cost of making an occasional mistake (salaries are pretty expensive too, after all!). In an ideal world, universities (especially those in the same country and supported by the same taxation system) would work together to create a system that was as seamless as possible to allow the free and speedy transfer of scientific tools and knowledge.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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