GatorWings Wins DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge.” DARPA User Agreement available here.

November 8, 2019; Chronicle of Higher Education

Is prize money a gift to inventors, or income generated by a project created by employees? This legal ambiguity has created a foreseeable scenario: The University of Florida says prize money should go to them, while the two professors who won a $2 million prize claim it is theirs.

On October 23, 2019, two professors of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Florida, John M. Shea and Tan F. Wong, and their team of an undergraduate student and three doctoral candidates won the grand prize over more than 100 other international teams in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) artificial intelligence competition.

Instead of a big celebratory welcome, the university greeted the winners with their hand out. In an email from a university lawyer to a lawyer who represents the faculty union, the professors were informed, “If Shea and Wong convert university funds to personal funds, they will be subject to personnel action and possibly other more serious consequences.”

The payees of the cash awards from DARPA are determined by the Social Security number of the individual applying for the contest, and paid to that individual, who is then responsible for how the dollars are divided among team members.

In an email, Jared B. Adams, a DARPA spokesperson, stated the award program hopes to be “both incentive and reward to the winners for the hard work and long hours it takes to successfully compete in a DARPA prize competition” and “provide a source of funding for maturation and future research to take place beyond the conclusion of the competition with the hope of accelerating the adoption of the technologies created.”

“We put our blood and sweat into this—working 14- or 16-hour days sometimes,” says David Greene, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering who works on artificial intelligence and communications for radio designs and is a member of the research team, GatorWings. “The university is basically setting a precedent that any cash prizes in any competition, whether they’re to students or faculty, will be owned by the university.”

Researchers and professors paid by institutions of higher learning do not own their patents and only get a portion of any commercial returns, since they are, in effect, being paid to research, create, and invent. In fact, until the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, even the institutions that received federal research and development funds could not get any benefits from inventions that came from their own organizations. After Bayh-Dole became law, university patents climbed from 250 a year to over 3,000 annually. There is now more pressure on universities to protect the intellectual property created on their premises, especially with public funds.

The prize issue has come up before, and the university’s faculty has filed unfair labor practice complaints with Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission. The GatorWings won $750,000 in the DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge two years ago, settling with the university to keep most of the dollars in a flexible spending account for continuing work on the winning artificial intelligence project, after taking some overhead off the top.

“For as long as anybody knows at the University of Florida,” says Eric Lindstrom, a lawyer for the United Faculty of Florida, a union that represents faculty members and graduate assistants on the campus, “faculty have always been allowed to keep money that is awarded to them through their scholarly work.”

The university policy created in 2018 after the GatorWings’ first big win states that prizes belong to the school if university resources and time were used to win. It attempts to differentiate between “grants” and “prizes”; grants are for present and future work, but prizes “are designed to reward R&D efforts that are not directly tied to future performance of work but rather for some achievement or accomplishment already achieved.”

“However,” the policy continues, “they are not personal ‘prizes’ such as the Pulitzer or Nobel, in that they are designed to reward accomplishments or incentivize development of a product rather than recognize individual scholarly stature.”

The union argument on the complaints asserts there was no bargaining for a matter that altered the employees’ employment terms and conditions. The GatorWings won another $750,000 prize after the policy was in place, in late 2018. The team was forced to relinquish the prize money to the university. Shea believed the threats could lead to firing, arrest, or other actions. The union filed its first complaint in June and followed the October 23rd prize with the second.

Shea and Wong are not asking that they keep all of the prize money. Rather, they propose to split any prizes equally between the institution and the inventors, mirroring a policy already in place for intellectual property. The professors also want to be able to pay other team members, who are students. The school has ignored their proposal. Shea also worries that according to the policy, prizes would be unrestricted income for the school and not reinvested in their research—or any team’s research.

Comparing the University of Florida with other research universities reveals that Florida is in the minority with its prize policy. Many contacted by the Chronicle of Higher Education said they don’t have a policy over prizes, and none contacted would demand the cash prize be turned over to the school. The University of Iowa and Northwestern University volunteered that they would look to the individual competitions’ guidelines.

“All faculty awards for scholarship flow from use of university resources,” says Milan Mrksich, interim vice president for research at Northwestern University. Resources and university time are not a consideration here. “There are faculty members who are focused on winning a Nobel Prize. The route to doing that depends heavily on the research that they supervise in their university lab.”

Shea acknowledges it is a legal issue now as to what a “prize” is. Still, what hurts him most is that “nobody from upper administration texted me, emailed me, or called me.”

“We won the Super Bowl of engineering,” says Shea, “and not the dean or the president of our own university could say ‘congratulations’ to us. It felt like a betrayal.”—Marian Conway