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I'm currently taking an elective course on renewable energy that is open to undergraduate seniors and graduate students. Our class project is to design a solar power system for a community in a developing country (including simulations with HOMER and HelioScope) and write a final report targeted for government officials in the country.

A professor from another university has been advising us on this project over Zoom (at the invitation of the course professor), providing us with background information on the community we're designing the system. My group believes the advising professor has a vested interest in the success of this project after we found a recent contract awarded by the government in the developing country to a consulting company to build a solar power system similar to the one we're designing.

There is no direct link between the advising professor and the company since there is very little publicly available information about it, but:

  1. The company is called _____ Technologies, where the blank is the nickname used by the advising professor.
  2. The company has two offices listed on their website, one within ~15 miles from the university the professor teaches at and the other in the developing country we're designing the system for.
  3. The system we're designing has the same capacity and is intended for the same location as the system specified by the contract awarded to the company.

Throughout the entire semester we have been reminded that our final reports for this project may be selected to be read by government officials in the developing country. There hasn't been any disclosure regarding a personal stake by the advising professor, and the course professor introduced him a subject matter expert who is helping out by providing advice regarding the project.

How should we approach this? The advising professor is a friend of our course professor, and we don't know if our course professor is aware of the contract.

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    Why do you think this is a problem? Why a conflict in particular? Conflict for whom? With whom?
    – Buffy
    Dec 9, 2020 at 21:14
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    And why do you care? I mean, if the project is interesting and comparable in difficulty to any other typical project given to the students at comparable stages of their education, what difference to you does it make if anybody can personally benefit from it or not? Just leave this question to the appropriate agencies.
    – fedja
    Dec 9, 2020 at 21:15
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    What country are you in? I’m pretty sure the extent to which this would be seen as problematic would vary greatly across countries depending on the local culture. From my US perspective, I do think this is problematic and the professor’s conduct could potentially violate specific policies at my university. If that’s relevant for you I could add more details, but first as I said it would be good to know what country this is happening in.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 9, 2020 at 21:47
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    @fedja Because a company would normally pay people to develop proposals. It's not cool to have students do things for a company who may profit off of their uncompensated work. Dec 9, 2020 at 22:56
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    When you began your studies, your university should have provided a "student handbook" or similar, specifying (among other things) who owns IP generated by students in the course of their studies. Once that's clear, then as long as there are records of who originated which ideas, it will be possible to sort everything out equitably if and when the professor's company wants to exploit the ideas. For records of who originated ideas, it may be wise to use e-mail as the main communication channel (especially if the e-mail server and its timestamps are controlled by a disinterested third party). Dec 10, 2020 at 11:13

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Assuming the professor's intentions are indeed as presumed, I think this is a problem for two reasons:

  • The students did not consent to being used as workforce.
  • Regardless of the extent of their contribution to the final product, the forced use of any uncompensated workforce means somebody who is qualified to get hired and do the job will not be getting hired, removing jobs from the market.

From a legal point of view, the professor may have every right to do what he is doing. If not, that is a problem on its own, and has been addressed in @Spark's answer. Otherwise, all the secrecy surrounding the matter was not necessary, and had he been more transparent, I highly doubt that any of the students would refuse to do the assignment.

For reasons of my own, this reminds me of the consent crisis surrounding pelvic exams performed by medical trainees on women under anesthesia. Perhaps since decades, it was considered ok for medical students and trainees to do such pelvic examinations. However, when the recipients found out about it, they felt exploited. Same here. There is a very fine line here: most women actually tend do provide consent to such practices if discussed prior to the procedure, but when found out about it afterwards, most find it shocking. The professor could have been more transparent, which would have had the additional benefit of helping the students feel not violated.

As an example supporting my latter point: in the United States, most universities typically have policies to limit the voluntary presence and participation of visiting scholars from other countries in research activities. This is because there are plenty of talented individuals from other countries who are ready to pay out of pocket to come to the US to progress their careers. It is easy for a primary investigator to run their lab relying on this freely acquired talent and preserve their grant money for other things. However, this prevents everybody (US citizens and foreigners alike) from actually getting paid research positions in labs. Policies as such aim to prevent this from happening and is for the benefit of everyone.

As far as you are concerned, some of you who graduate from your class may be potential employees for the professor in question, and if he keeps getting things done with free talent like yourselves, well, he will be needing you less. Future employment may be a very valid concern to approach your professors with.

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    Yes: issue of exploitation, and of prior consent. Dec 10, 2020 at 23:59
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You are raising two interesting issues. The first is that you are concerned that a professor is misusing university resources (students' time) for personal benefit. The second is that you aren't being paid to develop these technologies, nor are you engaged in a formal employment contract with the professor.

Usual disclaimers - I'm not a lawyer, do not make decisions based on advice from strangers on the Internet.

  1. Can your professor use university resources to advance their own company? This strongly depends on the agreement between the university and the professor. It may well be that the professor was granted prior approval to do this and you weren't told. It could be that the company is a non-profit/a subsidiary of the university or one of a million other statuses that allow these kinds of interactions. The point is that if the professor is actually misusing university resources to advance their research, your unhappiness is the least of their trouble. Universities are very sticky when it comes to intellectual property and their cut of profits from researchers' private enterprises, and you would not want to tangle with the expert team of lawyers that most of them employ for the sole purpose of protecting the university's IP. Thus, I don't believe that your professor would do something so blatantly stupid (at least if you are based in any North American/Western European university), that would cost them their job and a ton of money.
  2. Should the professor engage you in some kind of employment contract? Here's my hypothesis: you are overestimating the degree to which your project is going to be used as-is. You can think of the project as an "interview" process, and if the professor thinks you're any good, then they'll sign you on to their company, and more importantly, get you to sign an NDA.

With all that being said, if you are worried that something shady is going on, then you should approach your university's ombudsperson/HR regarding the matter.

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    That's an awfully verbose version of "do nothing". Dec 11, 2020 at 0:29
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This is a tricky question and I do not have a full answer. For purposes of advice, I will assume that you are correct in your suspicions that your work is going to be used for commercial purposes by the company of this professor. One thing to consider here is that you may automatically have some intellectual property rights to the work you do based on standard legislative rules. Therefore, if you have no contract with this company where you transfer those rights away, there is a danger to the company that you and other students can have a valid legal claim to (possibly partial) ownership of the IP of the device that is developed. If you later find out that your work has been used to produce a solar system that was sold to a government, one thing you could certainly consider is to get advice from an IP lawyer to determine what rights you may have in relation to the IP. It would be important to document your contribution to the project (though that is probably going to happen anyway just through your written communications on the project).

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[You are to] design a solar power system for a community in a developing country...and write a final report targeted for government officials in the country [under the guidance of a professor you believe] has a vested interest in the success of this project...There hasn't been any disclosure regarding a personal stake by the advising professor...How should we approach this?

As a wonderful opportunity!

Instead, you seem to be developing a conspiracy theory. Somehow believing the professor is exploiting you for their own personal gain. Rather than a more humble objective: Sharing their vast knowledge with you, allowing you to engage with a real problem facing this particularly developing nation.

I'm sure there exists a group of students that can do better than the professor, the developing nation, and other stakeholders; you need only look to some of world's best entrepreneurs. Perhaps such greats are amongst your group. That's statistically unlikely though. I'll leave it to you and your group to speculate.

You consider the professor shady for not disclosing any interest they may have, for using a pseudonym. Yet, the professor is likely bound by a confidentiality agreement, forbidding them from talking more freely.

I suggest you make the most of this opportunity, without confronting the professor. If you must, ask guarded questions, e.g., Professor, perhaps you're unable to directly answer such questions, but, if I may, are we discussing the [nation] government contract for a solar power system? Perhaps following up with, the one awarded to [X] Technologies? Thereafter maybe even, can you talk freely or are you bound by confidentiality?

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No special approach is required. This is an excellent educational opportunity.

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  • +1: Although an elaboration would be nice! ;-)
    – user2768
    Dec 11, 2020 at 12:00
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Science is actually supposed to benefit industry. This is perfectly fine as long as it is not coming across ethics.

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    Even if that's true, which I disagree with, undergraduate classes aren't. Dec 9, 2020 at 23:08

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