Intellectual impasse

April 7, 1995

Now the clamour of the "battle with the CBI on intellectual rights" (THES, March 17 and letters March 24) has subsided, it is time for a cool look at the underlying issues. The unfortunate tone of reported comments from the industry side to "have the work done abroad" and from the university side to "only require that the company defers brandishing the big stick" are at odds with the spirit of partnership advocated in the 1993 Science White Paper. What is wrong?

The universities have had to respond to successive cutbacks by adopting ever more businesslike attitudes. In the past few bothered to recover their full costs of research done for industry but now all must try. Industry, however, does not want to pay more. To retain past benefits from what amounted to Government-subsidised research, some leading firms are holding on to schemes they devised to support research more than a decade ago. No concession is made to the universities' changed situation.

A recent confirmation of this was the protests from sectors of industry at the introduction by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of its GR funding element to reward universities which retained ownership of intellectual property arising from industry-sponsored work. The underlying message from HEFCE was that sponsors should be prepared to pay more when they owned arising IP to compensate the university for the loss of GR. Putting a value on IP in the way HEFCE has done is clearly in the long-term public interest.

Universities should point out to industry that they must achieve reasonable prices for research if the science base, on which industry depends, is not to be eroded further. Industry must recognise that universities can no longer offer the same terms as they once did.

DAVID THOMAS

Pro rector (research contracts) Imperial College, London

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