Federal Research:

DOE Is Addressing Invention Disclosure and Other Challenges but Needs a Plan to Guide Data Management Improvements

GAO-15-212: Published: Jan 30, 2015. Publicly Released: Mar 2, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) provided at least a total of $11 billion ($12 billion in fiscal year 2014 dollars) in research and development funding to contractors for fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Contractors reported about 5,800 inventions and 700 patents developed with DOE funding during this time period. To ensure disclosure of these agency funded inventions, DOE relies primarily on contractor self-reporting and financial assistance award closeout procedures. Contractors are generally required to adhere to specific time frames for invention disclosure. Following contractor invention disclosure, DOE patent counsel monitor the invention through the end of a financial assistance award to ensure contractor compliance with time frame requirements for electing to retain ownership and applying for patent protection of the invention.

DOE faces challenges in (1) ensuring that contractors disclose agency funded inventions and (2) managing information related to these disclosures and is taking steps to address them.

Limited ability to ensure invention disclosure after funding ends: DOE does not have a documented process to ensure contractors disclose inventions after financial assistance awards end. To address this, DOE recently began two pilot efforts to determine the extent of undisclosed inventions. One is an audit of a sample of previously completed financial assistance awards and the other involves cross-referencing U.S. Patent and Trademark Office data against DOE information on inventions it funded. DOE is still implementing these efforts but reported identifying more than 100 potential undisclosed inventions. DOE will assess the results of the pilots to determine whether to continue them, according to DOE patent counsel.

Data management limitations: DOE faces a challenge in managing information related to agency funded inventions because it relies on two different data systems that are outdated, unable to communicate with each other, and do not allow for electronic reporting. Under federal internal control standards, information should be recorded and communicated to management and others within the entity who need it and in a form and within a time frame that enables them to carry out their responsibilities. DOE is in the process of updating its data systems and is planning the development of an electronic reporting function but has not established an implementation plan with milestones against which it can track its progress toward completing these efforts. By developing such a plan, DOE would have greater assurance that it is making timely progress toward these efforts.

In addition, DOE faces challenges in its ability to monitor and influence the utilization and domestic manufacture of inventions it funded to protect its interests in them. DOE has proposed regulatory changes to address these challenges that would (1) require contractors to report on the utilization and domestic manufacture of agency funded inventions, (2) allow DOE to assess manufacturing plans as criteria for funding decisions, and (3) require contractors to obtain DOE authorization for changes in their control—including ownership—under certain circumstances. According to patent counsel, DOE expects to finalize these regulatory changes in fiscal year 2015.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE provides funding to contractors for research and development of new technologies. To incentivize participation in federal research projects and promote the use of federally funded inventions, the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act and other laws and regulations allow contractors receiving federal research and development funds to retain ownership of inventions they create so long as they adhere to certain requirements, including disclosing inventions developed with agency funding. DOE's ability to protect its interests in these inventions—including their utilization and domestic manufacture—depends on its knowledge of their existence.

GAO was asked to review DOE efforts to protect its interests in agency funded inventions. This report examines: (1) DOE funding for contractor research for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 and how DOE ensures that contractors disclose agency funded inventions, (2) the challenges DOE faces in ensuring invention disclosure and actions it is taking to address them, and (3) the challenges DOE faces in protecting its interests in these inventions and the actions it is taking to address them. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and other documents and interviewed DOE patent counsel responsible for intellectual property issues, representatives of organizations that facilitate the development of federally funded technology, and others.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOE develop an implementation plan with milestones for improving its data management systems. DOE agreed with this recommendation.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE developed an implementation plan that identifies milestones for DOE's transition to a unified electronic system to track agency funded inventions.

    Recommendation: To help provide greater assurance that DOE is making timely progress toward obtaining the information management capabilities it needs to protect its interests by monitoring contractor disclosure of agency funded inventions, the Secretary of Energy should develop an implementation plan, including appropriate milestones, to guide DOE's efforts to improve its data management capabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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