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Maybe not a milestone in human knowledge, but it's the latest innovation from the labs at Harvard University, which is cashing in on faculty research at the rate of more than $5 million a year.

Revenue from patents and inventions is skyrocketing at universities and colleges, which are searching for ways to raise money at the same time private industry is cutting back on research and development.

U.S. universities and colleges made $318 million in royalties from faculty inventions during 1993, the last year for which the figures are available, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. That was up 40 percent over 1992. Collectively, the schools awarded 2,227 licenses to private industry and applied for a record 3,835 new patents.

Harvard, which earned a meager $24,000 from patent royalties in 1980, made $5.4 million in 1993 and again last year. The money was split between the departments in which the discoveries were made, the university and the inventors.

``Companies are definitely looking at universities as a source of product ideas because they're cutting back on R&D,'' said Joyce Brinton, director of the Office for Technology and Trademark Licensing at Harvard and president of the technology managers' organization. ``And, yeah, the fact that there's going to be some income from this is definitely a plus.''

The University of Arizona has patented a high-yield hybrid cotton. Scientists at the University of Connecticut designed a plastic filter drain and orthodonture wire made from titanium. The University of Illinois is licensing a prosthetic ear-bone joint and the University of Nebraska has developed grass that needs less mowing, watering and fertilizer.

People who are uncomfortable with a cozy relationship between universities and private industry question whether it is right for schools to reap millions from research that was underwritten by taxpayers in the form of federal grants.

``The fundamental assumption of higher education in this country is that there should be a free exchange of information and ideas,'' said Arthur Brown, director of the Center for Academic Ethics at Wayne State University. ``That doesn't happen when information is withheld in order to ensure that one company gets a jump on its competitors.''

Terri Willey, director of technology transfer at Purdue University, said faculty who work with private industry are not prevented from sharing the results of their research, though some allow their private partners to review the information first.

University officials also said that selling off inventions developed using federal grants creates jobs and, consequently, more tax revenue.

In addition, they said, schools are being forced to find new ways to pay for research as the amount of federal funding levels off or falls.

``This has caused the universities to reach out to private industry to a great extent for research funding,'' said Terry Feuerborn, director of technology transfer for the University of California system, which made $45.4 million during 1993 _ more than any single institution.

Authorities point out that royalties from patents represent a fraction of the $17.1 billion a year spent nationwide on university research.

``Most people who are even reasonably optimistic think it's highly unlikely that very many institutions will ever realize more than 5 percent of their research budget from this source,'' Brinton said.

Richard Nelson, an economist and professor at Columbia University, is part of a group of faculty that is investigating the rise of university patents. He said he worries that some schools have been putting pressure on their faculty to do research in areas most likely to produce a payback.

But university administrators said faculty have come to like the idea.

``When I first started doing this, I saw a lot more hesitancy to getting into commercializing your research results than I do now,'' Willey said. ``If they really believe that this is a way for the public to benefit from their research results, they're happy to do it.''

And the money doesn't hurt, Brinton said, ``especially when it's time to send the kids to college.''