Opinion: Under the radar

As the REF consultation winds up, Donald Braben looks back at previous attempts to exploit research. The results were mixed, because future performance in science and technology is virtually impossible to predict

December 15, 2009

I wonder if the politicians behind the campaign to increase “impact” have examined previous governments’ attempts to formalise the exploitation of research results?

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the Attlee Government created the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) to commercially develop wartime inventions. Its remit was extended during the 1960s to give the NRDC a virtual monopoly on all innovations derived from publicly funded research.

The NRDC was no Ivory Tower derivative. It was led by industrial heavyweights such as William Black and Frank Schon (both subsequently elevated to the peerage), and had a large staff of patent lawyers, venture capitalists and financial experts to ensure that good ideas reached the market.

Its record was mixed. An assessment published in 1984 (Research and Innovation, by L. Rotherham) concluded that one third of its ventures were a complete loss, one third broke even and one third made a profit. Indeed, although the “dead hand” epithet has often been used to describe government interventions in general, the NRDC virtually monopolised it for years.

Its most egregious omission concerned the work of César Milstein and Georges Köhler, researchers from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. In 1975, they discovered ways to produce in a test tube highly specific antibodies used in the development and control of immune systems – monoclonal antibodies. They won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery in 1984.

Although their research was driven by their fascination with the origin of antibody diversity, the commercial implications of the discovery were immediately obvious even to them, and were reported in their first publication. They were right: the discovery proved to be a powerful stimulant for the biotechnology revolution. Nevertheless, despite the scientists’ sustained pressure, the NRDC declined to patent it, an omission that probably cost the UK billions of pounds. It also attracted Margaret Thatcher’s ire when she became Prime Minister.

Hindsight offers infallible perspectives, of course. However, the NRDC’s lapse was not merely a mistake but a direct consequence of the fact that future performance in science and technology is virtually impossible to predict, even for professionals in the exploitation game.

In Times Higher Education, Dave Delpy, champion for economic impact at Research Councils UK, recently wrote: “Some may have forgotten that providing solutions to economic and social challenges is what the funding is for and we have a duty to the Government and public to explain the return on that investment” (“They’re not unreasonable”, 26 November).

Indeed we do, but if that duty is laid on each individual academic as a condition to be satisfied in advance of any work being done, it inevitably means that they must take their eyes off the scientific ball. There is a world of difference between doing what one is inspired to do, and proposing what one thinks one’s masters want to hear. That duty should be a collective one and best discharged from the centre by, say, RCUK, after the event. After all, it will have excellent stories to report.

Radar was one of Britain’s conspicuous wartime success stories, but a history published in 2000, A Radar History of World War II by Louis Brown, a scientist and historian at the Carnegie Institution,Washington, showed that it was the close co-operation between scientists and the military that paid off: radar alone would not have been enough. At Pearl Harbor, for example, the US naval base attacked by the Japanese, there was adequate radar cover but no effective plan for using it.

Wars are now mainly economic, of course, and industry must take the lead. If RCUK and the Government were to catalyse an effective mutual understanding between industry and the academic sector in which each respected the other’s strengths, the benefits could be incalculable.

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