.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The appliance of science

Interesting debate in today's Independent on the future of science funding in England in which a number of prominent academics are protesting about plans to change the rules on scientific funding.

They are concerned that making university research more accountable to the wider economy will stifle the sort of curiosity-driven research that has led to groundbreaking discoveries and Nobel prizes:

More than 18,000 academics have signed a petition condemning the proposed changes. They include Nobel prize winners Sir Tim Hunt, Sir John Walker, Sir Harold Kroto and Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, as well as leading scientists such as Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Steven Rose and Professor Steve Jones.

In a separate poll of nearly 600 university professors, two-thirds said that they oppose funding changes that would force 25 per cent of future research to be assessed on economic impacts rather than scientific excellence alone.

A third said they would consider moving to another country if the changes came into effect and half said that the proposals would change the way they hired or fired staff in their departments.

The changes are being orchestrated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under a government initiative to make public funding for scientific research more relevant to the wider economy and society.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England believes that their new "research excellence framework", which will replace the current research assessment exercise, will develop and sustain "a dynamic and internationally competitive research sector that makes a major contribution to economic prosperity, national well-being and the expansion and dissemination of knowledge".

They propose to give significant additional recognition "where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life."

However the scientists argue that this additional restriction on what gets funded will 'suffocate the sort of blue-sky, curiosity-driven research that has produced some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the history of British science, from the discovery of the DNA double helix to the invention of the computer protocol behind the world wide web.'

They say that the proposed change to research funding is "profoundly misconceived" because it is primarily for industry and not for government to be thinking of ways of gaining economic benefit from science.

In many ways this could turn out to be just a storm in a tea cup. Research has always depended on external funding and scientists have often relied on commercial sources to provide the cash with the result that they have had to adapt their work accordingly. Is it too much to ask that some of the publicly funded research is conducted on the same terms? It is also right though that government should not interfere in academic freedom.

There is a balancing act here that may well prove to be attainable when both sides move away from the literal interpretation of the words in the HEFCE policy document.

Although these provisions do not apply to Wales the debate itself is still relevant to us. We do not produce enough patents in our universities and we do have the objective of developing a high value economy based on innovation and research. As such the Welsh Government and HEFCW also need to think how they can use the funding they put into research to achieve these goals. It is possible that a similar policy will appear here in the near future.

It is also the case that Welsh Universities do not limit their search for funding to within the Welsh borders. There is some crossover and that means that what happens in England has an impact here too. I look forward to the relevant Welsh Minister's take on this issue.
"We do not produce enough patents in our universities ..."

Very true - HEFCW hasn't used its spending power to ensure that university discoveries and innovation are patent protected.

As to the university excuse that it is up to "industry and not for government to be thinking of ways of gaining economic benefit from science" - the university professors/staff that hold this view are WRONG. MIT doesn't take that view - and they publish their findings AND file patents on their discoveries/innovation - "In the 2006 academic year, MIT faculty and researchers disclosed 487 inventions, filed 314 patent applications, received 149 patents, and earned $129.2 million in royalties and other income"; source: Wikipedia.

In fact, I just checked the US Patent Office Database and got:

Results of Search in US Patent Collection db for:
AN/((Massachusetts AND Institute) AND Technology): 3319 patents.

The reality is: Welsh people need jobs; the Welsh economy can't afford to export jobs because professors are too stuck-up to consider filing a patent on their discoveries.

Enough is enough - HEFCW should use its spending power to ensure that patents are filed - it takes very little effort to file, for example, a provisional patent application in the USA. A research paper (providing it includes an enabling description (e.g., a method and materials section that does not leave out anything that a person of ordinary skill in the art would need to know to practice the invention/discovery) and providing best mode (what the inventor(s) consider is the best way to practice their invention) then a draft research paper for publication can provide the basis of the provisional patent application.

Just think if the two MRC inventors of monoclonal antibodies had filed a provisional patent application in the USA on their MABs discovery - a multibillion dollar industry would have been ours to create British jobs and wealth. Just think where the UK would be if the British inventor of the HTTP had filed a patent application - Google has made billions using the HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol).

What's wrong with Wales/UK making jobs out of its inventions/innovation? Those British professors who want to remain in-situ in ivory towers are doing this country no favours whatsoever. The UK/Wales is fast loosing out to former third world countries that are spending more and more on research, but also spending some money on filing patents with the stated aim of boosting their national economies. If you can see the figures that I see – it is staggering how many patents they are filing, they want to be the IBMs in the world economy. South East Asia is filing patents, China is catching up, India is engaging in more and more research and filing patents. It is only stupid attitudes among some senior UK academics who oppose the very notion of filing a patent application, like it is something that the cat dragged in. Frankly, Wales can not afford to give away its intellectual property (IP), and please remember the adage “It’s not IP if it is not patented – any Tom, Richard, Harry, foreign competitor can copy, use, sell, distribute Welsh IP if it is not patent protected.”

The UK/Wales is CRYING out for high value jobs, but if we don't file patents on the new innovations - then any Tom, Richard, Harry, foreign competitor can make, use, sell, distribute the invention without having spent a penny on discovering the invention and without fear of a patent infringement suit - that's what happened with the MABs fiasco - whole industries sprung forth from the original MABs invention - none of them had to pay royalties to the Medical Research Council or to the MRC scientists that discovered how to create immortal cell lines based on their MABs discovery/invention. The amount of money and jobs exported out of the UK could have funded a good chunk of the NHS for many years.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?