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FSU and hurricanes: Who owns research?

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published July 16, 2006


In the late 1990s, Florida State University, under the direction of a professor of meteorology named T.N. Krishnamurti, developed a new tool for predicting the path and intensity of hurricanes.

FSU's creation was named the "super ensemble." It was an ingenious compilation of existing prediction models, accounting for and canceling out their known biases.

It was nice work. The super ensemble became one of the most accurate of the dozen-or-so models regularly used by the National Hurricane Center. During the active 2004 season, FSU's model was the most accurate of all.

On June 4, however, you might have seen an item in this newspaper under the headline Forecasting tool is no longer free. The article, reprinted from the Lakeland Ledger, caused a bit of a stir around the state:

 

For the first time this decade, the National Hurricane Center might not have one of its best hurricane forecasting tools.

The technology, which federal dollars helped develop, has been sold to a for-profit company.

Florida State University, the alma mater of NHC director Max Mayfield, will not send data to the center from its acclaimed super-ensemble computer forecasting model this season because it sold the commercial rights to its patented technology to Weather Predict of North Carolina.

The situation has pitted scientists against private enterprise and could put a price tag on information used to determine whether thousands of people need to be evacuated as a storm approaches.

 

A few days later, perhaps because of the publicity, Weather Predict announced that it would keep supplying super ensemble data to the National Hurricane Center at least for the 2006 season. But future years are up in the air.

There is nothing unique or unusual about FSU's deal - which is exactly why this is an interesting question. Universities license their "intellectual property" discoveries through research agreements with private companies all the time.

Probably the most famous example in this state is Gatorade, the sports drink developed at the University of Florida. But many other ideas, methods and products are the subject of contracts between universities and the private sector.

Neither did FSU just up and sell the super ensemble out of the blue. Weather Predict had been involved in the project for years and developed the software for using the data. The company helped sponsor the research and had a contract to get the license.

As for what this means in terms of risk to Florida, the FSU data is one more tool in the National Hurricane Center's arsenal, but only that. Its potential loss is more a matter of "every bit of data helps" rather than of crippling the official forecast.

In 2005, in the official 12-hour forecasts for Atlantic hurricanes, there was an average error of 31.2 nautical miles in storm track, and 8.7 knots in intensity of the storm's winds.

By comparison, the FSU super ensemble's average errors were 29.3 miles and 7.7 knots - better, but certainly not the difference between Florida being hit or not hit, between ordering an evacuation or not, between putting up plywood or not.

I am not defending FSU's contract with Weather Predict, or jumping for joy over it, but only putting it in context. Sponsored research and licensing agreements for university discoveries are the way of the world.

You could argue that in the case of hurricanes, public safety is so important that FSU should not be entitled to sell its data privately. But if we want that to be our law, we need to say so on the front end - and we need to be aware of the potential impact of such a rule on university research grants and contracts.

One day, maybe, one of our universities will cure cancer. If on that day we expect that university to publish its cure for free to a grateful world, without licensing it to Big Drug Company Inc. (especially when that company sponsored the research), then we need to do some fundamental thinking about the way the research system works, and who pays for it.

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Speaking of doing some fundamental thinking, I am going to go weed the garden, clean out my garage and goof off for a week. See you in a few days.