A patently provocative tale

Howard Davies on a saucily titled attack on state funding for research and intellectual property rights

February 21, 2008

Heinemann clearly know how to produce an attention-grabbing title. With sex and money covered, I am surprised they did not manage to get Hitler in there as well - still the other surefire bookseller, even in the 21st century. In fact, there is rather more about science and profit than about the other thing. This will come as a sad disappointment for anyone who plucks Terence Kealey's latest volume down from the top shelf in a plastic wrapper.

So what exactly will curious readers find, if not titillation? First and foremost, they will encounter a robust polemic. Kealey, a tireless advocate of privately funded higher education from his vice-chancellorial perch at the University of Buckingham, believes that most, if not all, government funding of scientific research is a waste of money. Market mechanisms have always operated far more effectively, in his view. Indeed, he argues that "there is no such thing as science, there is only a network of scientists who trade information: and one information they trade is need. If there is a need for more knowledge, the network links the profit seekers with the researchers, and more research is commissioned." Quite simple, really.

So all the paraphernalia of government grant funding is not needed. It adds cost and subtracts value. We can abandon most of the funding council apparatus, and the Medical Research Council would certainly be for the chop under Kealey's new dispensation. He believes that its mission and methodologies have been fundamentally flawed from its foundation.

He also takes aim, again, at patents - long the blackest of his betes noires. On the Kealey analysis, patent protection has hindered technological progress throughout history. Watt's inferior steam engine blocked Trevithick and Stephenson with their superior designs for a quarter of a century. The same, in his view, continues to happen today. "In conclusion, therefore, patents should be abolished: only where markets cannot, inherently, be brisk would patents be retained."

The pharmaceutical industry escapes under this get-out clause. The intellectual property industry is predictably outraged: you can access some purple prose on the subject from the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, which believes that "Dr Kealey has a basic misunderstanding of what patents are and how they work".

If this thesis were all there was to Sex, Science and Profit, it would be a bracing but dry read. Indeed, as the themes are familiar Kealey territory, we might wonder whether another rehearsal of the same arguments is strictly necessary.

But there is more to the book than the basic thesis I have decided. Kealey takes us on an entertaining canter through global history, from the Stone Age, through the Bronze, Dark and Middle ages, to the industrial and agricultural revolutions and beyond. On this journey, Kealey is a kind of jousting knight taking aim at any windmill he sees - from Francis Bacon to Charlie Falconer and the Millennium Dome. Self-discipline is perhaps not his strong point, and the mighty and the trivial are treated with similar disdain, but energy and muscular prose are much in evidence. Almost every reader will find a number of her prejudices entertainingly supported, but also a few of her sacred cows summarily slaughtered.

If you enjoy being irritated, this is the book for you. Although if I were David Eastwood at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, I would look elsewhere on the top shelf for stimulation.

Sir Howard Davies is director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and was previously chairman of the Financial Services Authority

Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money

By Terence Kealey
William Heinemann
ISBN 9780434008247
Published 17 January 2008

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