Public Research and Private Property

The main aim of research is to create new knowledge. It is not just about enhancing the profit margins of corporations, many of which do not even meet their tax obligations in Ireland.

            Third point, Defend the Irish University

University research is a major component in the development of knowledge and technology, providing long-term benefits across society. However, the current vogue for ‘technology transfer’ risks turning campuses into cut-price research labs for private corporations.

It is surely not controversial that technological developments should not gather dust, but the way in which research moves outside of the university deserves careful attention and debate. Ireland is currently in the grasp of the commercialisation paradigm. Rhetoric aside, these initiatives see public funds being used to provide research for private businesses, or to set up new companies altogether.

State agencies like Enterprise Ireland are at the forefront of the commercialisation drive across the third level. Schemes such as ‘Innovation Partnerships’, ‘Technology Gateways and Centres’, Innovation Vouchers and the ‘Technology Transfer Strengthening Initiative’, give corporations access to academic research and intellectual property. The Innovation Partnerships scheme, according to EI, “encouraged Irish-based companies to work with Irish research institutes resulting in mutually beneficial co-operation and interaction. Companies can access expertise and resources to develop new and improved products, processes, services, and generate new knowledge and know-how. ”[1]

With research funded up to 80% by Enterprise Ireland, these Partnerships clearly show the lopsided nature of the relationship. The State provides the funding, the researchers the knowledge, the property accrues to the private partner. Indeed, they might even be contrary to European law on state aid, which requires the commercial partner to bear the full cost of the project.[2]

It is also increasingly popular for universities themselves to initiate start-ups, with private companies emerging with intellectually property derived from academic research. This has been supported by Enterprise Ireland, which has, since 2007, helped set up Technology Transfer Offices across the third level sector. Judged on its own terms, these could be seen as a success; over 100 start-ups have emerged over four years, and EI boasts that Irish universities generate up to four times more new private businesses per expenditure than their American or European counterparts.[3]

However, it is more difficult to justify when we see what happens afterwards; spin-out success stories like SlidePath and ChangingWorlds have been bought up by major multinational corporations, intellectual property and all, so there are no guarantees of long-term employment or indeed tax returns.[4]

What’s the alternative?

From the perspective of business, this is clearly a good deal. The public sector takes on the slog and hard work and risk of doing research which may be years from maturity. The State’s role is simply to serve up ripe research, through licensing deals, innovation partnerships or to be snapped up from emerging spin-outs. Politicians make no bones about it; speaking in December 2011, Sean Sherlock said, “I believe that it is important that Ireland develops a reputation in industry circles for providing access to intellectual property in a professional and efficient way.”

But another paradigm should be put forward. We should start from the principle that public funds must be spent for the public good, not to prop up the profits of private enterprise; that the role of the university is to develop and spread knowledge, not to sequester it for multinationals. We can look at examples of open-source technology development, such as the Raven II surgical robot, developed by institutions such as Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University and UC Berkeley. Indeed, the open source model has been advanced in the United States by companies such as Intel and IBM, which see longer-term benefits in enabling greater cross-institution collaboration.

We could also look at further harnessing research to improve State services and thus directly repay the taxpayer. Clearly, areas such as government data management, public transport and healthcare have ample room for innovation. One university strategic plan boasts about its commitment to ‘ turning research into reality’[5]. It is perhaps time to research an alternative reality.

[1] Innovation Partnership Programme, 2013 Brochure, Enterprise Ireland, available: http://www.enterprise-ireland.com/en/Funding-Supports/Researcher/Funding-to-Collaborate-with-Industry-in-Ireland/Innovation-Partnerships.shortcut.html

[2] http://www.out-law.com/en/articles/2013/november/universities-involved-in-commercial-research-must-be-wary-of-breaching-state-aid-rules-says-expert/

[3] Inventions & Innovations, Enterprise Ireland, available:

http://www.enterprise-ireland.com/en/news/pressreleases/2012-press-releases/inventions-and-innovations.pdf

[4] SlidePath was bought by Genetix, itself later bought by Molecular Devices, while ChangingWorlds was bought by Amdocs. See:

http://www.enterprise-ireland.com/en/Researchers/The-business-or-research.pdf

[5] DCU Strategic Plan, 2012-2015. Available at:

http://www.dcu.ie/external-strategic-affairs/strategic-plan.shtml

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