Thursday, 9 September 2010

The politics of science funding, in two parts: Part One - Spin (offs)

On Wednesday September 8th 2010 the Business Secretary Dr. Vince Cable laid out his plans for the future of science and technology funding in the UK in a speech as Queen Mary, University of London. I'd like to contribute to the debate the speech has sparked, in two parts - Part One looks at two concepts likely to be at the heart of the Coalition Government's approach to science funding; the Spin-Off, and commercially useful research. Part Two will focus on the science community's reaction to Dr. Cable's speech, and the implications for the relationship between science, government and the economy.

Spin – where science, business and government interact.

This summer has been full of spin, from Graeme Swann flooring Pakistan’s batting order, to the political type relating more to budget deficits, and free schools – perhaps more prominent than ever in our brave new world of coalition government. But it seems one type of spin – or rather, spin-off – may be in retreat; moreover, opinion is divided over the merits its apparent decline.

Spin-off companies, start-up business ventures (usually) originating in academic institutions, are a means to commercialise the fruits of research; patenting molecules, materials and more to cash in on the often lucrative intellectual property that scientific research can give rise to.

Not unnatural, one might think; having invested millions in highly specialised research, institutions look to profit from the sale of resultant technology – many say that’s as it should be. However, some see the attraction of IP-driven commercialisation as putting the profit motive before research aims, making science subservient to commercial interests – often to the detriment of scientific and medical progress. It’s this subversion of the scientific process which drives critics of the spin-off model as it’s currently applied, who rightly worry about academic independence.

So why the interest in spin-offs and the links between academic research and business? The rise and fall of the spin-off has largely mirrored the availability of easy credit in recent years, with new companies far thinner on the ground since the financial crash. This matter all the more given the financial pressures research institutions are likely to face in the near future: fans of the spin-off will advocate greater, more lucrative commercialisation of research, arguing that institutions can offset government spending cuts, whilst critics will fear even greater dependence on market forces and a greater focus on what makes money rather than what we as a society deem of importance.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable, under whose auspices university and science funding falls, argues that as central government funding for science is cut, institutions should take three mitigating actions: one, concentrate on research that is rated as internationally excellent, two, focus on commercially useful research. and three, increase the rate at which they spin-off their research into commercial entities and products. Two broad problems arise.

Firstly, internationally excellent and commercially useful research is made possible by the unglamorous work of so-called lesser labs, on whose shoulders the giants of world-beating science stand; take away the work that is, in Dr. Cable’s words, ‘neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding,’ and you risk the whole enterprise of scientific endeavour from collapsing (and this is to say nothing of who or what decides on what is of either commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding). Of course, the way to judge Dr. Cable’s position on the level of funding is to see what comes out of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR); but as Dr. Evan Harris wrote in analysing Dr. Cable's speech,

it is hard to measure the theoretical breakthroughs let alone the commercial utility at the outset, and secondly because – as Cable says elsewhere in his speech – there is a false dichotomy between the theoretical and the commercial
which makes it all the more important that the CSR doesn't impose an arbitrary standard of commercial utility on publicly funded science.

Secondly, tying research to commercial interests risks recreating the private-sector’s profit-driven approach in the public sphere; society would in fact benefit if publicly-funded research focussed precisely on those areas which corporate chiefs deem commercially unviable, such as mental health, technology to mitigate climate change and eradication of infectious diseases in the Third World.

Which is not to say that links between commerce and research are to be avoided – there are many successful examples of such links, particularly in the Research Triangle in North Carolina and Palo Alto’s faculty-business links. But it’s crucial that spin-offs remain just that – side-effects if you will, not the goal itself. Because a world without knowledge that cannot be patented would be a poorer place, perhaps not in the narrow economic sense that scientists now fear their work will be judged upon, but in a way that makes it that much harder for the Newtons and Darwins of tomorrow to expand the horizons of human understanding – something that’s hard to put a price on.

1 comment:

Dr Aust said...

The evidence in the biosciences is that "predicting" what science will lead to future advances and applications is so flawed as to be totally unworkable. This has been known since the 1970s, and the work of Comroe & Dripps on the basic research underlying advances in cardiopulmonary medicine. More on their work, plus links, in this discussion of the futility of "picking winners"