Leader: Pricing the brains of Britain

UK academics' ideas may be a potential goldmine, as many argue. But putting fences around ideas may not pay off in the end

February 28, 2008

There is an oft-repeated argument that the British can create but cannot produce; that we can generate fantastic ideas and then fail to set up a production line to turn them out in profitable, practicable or efficient quantities. Our universities, it is said, have inspired some of the world's great inventions only to see the patents and benefits bought and exploited by dexterous foreigners who somehow contrive to be terribly unimaginative when it comes to conjuring up the idea but fiendishly clever in exploiting it. How come?

The assumption is that the picture would look less bleak if we had in place processes to identify good ideas and provide the legal, financial and mechanical support to make them fly, via slick, savvy knowledge-transfer offices. The sums universities earn from their ideas are tiny. Only 0.2 per cent of UK university funding is estimated to be derived from patent exploitation. If institutions pulled their collective finger out, it is suggested, they could emulate the success of US institutions that have a far greater appreciation and application of research to profit. Is this correct and if so, is it desirable?

According to the data, the UK is not as efficient at converting research into patents as the US, though it outpaces continental Europe. At the turn of the last century, American professors were encouraged not to be diverted from the pursuit of pure knowledge by the prospect of turning a dime. They ignored the advice in sufficient numbers to create a system that, at least to British politicians, looks seductively intellectual and entrepreneurial. US universities preceded their British counterparts by several years in founding offices to maximise IP potential. A few have been spectacularly successful; some have had a couple of notable successes while nursing many more duds; a lot have been disasters. Whatever the opportunities, UK universities should take a deep breath before rushing in.

If the sums add up, should institutions and academics venture to prosper? Perhaps, but there are other considerations: there are also the matters of ownership and collaboration. The situation in the UK is relatively straightforward - universities typically own the rights to their researchers' inventions. If they are exploited commercially, the institution and the academic share the profits.

But while the law may be clear, the ethics are not. If a researcher studying the botanical lore of aboriginal groups is shown uses for plants unknown to modern medicine, who owns the IP? The academic, his or her institution or the tribe? Would an academic be obliged to allow a cash-strapped university the opportunity to exploit it, even if he and the native "owners" objected? Or should they accept the loot, conscience salved by the knowledge that the discovery will benefit a far larger and richer tribe?

Erecting fences around knowledge can be equally questionable. A couple of years ago, the University of Wisconsin filed valuable patents relating to stem-cell research. Its less-than-collegial pursuit of its rights - charging not only private companies but also fellow universities for licences - did not go down well with academics. And Wisconsin is hardly alone.

There is an inherent danger that in their pell-mell rush to commercialise research, universities will compromise a fundamental part of their mission. Knowledge is their prime business, not its exploitation. Certainly there must be some trade-off between the time, effort and money devoted to exploring and expanding an idea and the openness to external collaboration that will give it wings. But where would we be if, for instance, Cern had decided to patent the internet? Cultural anarchy is just as good as necessity as a mother to invention. And who can stake a claim to that?

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