Science needs clarity on intellectual property

August 6, 1999

University research is the "lifeblood" of the United Kingdom's biotechnology sector, but researchers are hampered by uncertainty over the ownership of the intellectual property they generate, according to a report published yesterday.

The study, by the Department of Trade and Industry, recommends that research councils, medical charities and other funding bodies work with the Office of Science and Technology to review their policies on intellectual property "to ensure clarity and avoid conflicting claims".

This may involve, for example, ensuring that intellectual property ownership is vested in the organisation generating the intellectual property. The DTI fears that the current, fragmented intellectual property regime is acting as a "disincentive" to academics interested in commercialising their work.

The report is based on a fact-finding mission by a team led by science minister Lord Sainsbury to firms and universities in ten regions of the UK where the biotechnology sector is particularly strong.

These "clusters" include Cambridge, Oxford, Central Scotland, the Northeast and the Southeast. The team included vice-chancellors Gareth Roberts of Sheffield University and Alan Wilson of Leeds, entrepreneur Chris Evans, Mark Ferguson of Manchester University and Philip Cooke of Cardiff University.

Lord Sainsbury told The THES: "It is a strong feature of these clusters that they are in the widest sense heavily related to higher education institutions and medical research centres. But academics must be aware that this is not the means by which enormous financial resources will be made available to universities."

The UK is the biotechnology leader in Europe with 0 companies. To keep it there, the government has announced a Pounds 6.45 million programme called the Biotechnology Exploitation Platform Challenge. This is intended to encourage more effective collaboration among academic institutions and to make the best use of the knowledge generated by their research in biotechnology.

Lord Sainsbury's team was "impressed" by the extent to which intellectual property is being exploited by universities, but the report says there is room for improvement. It also expressed concern over local authority planning controls, which hamper some biotechnology developments.

The DTI report also recommends that:

Universities and venture capitalists combine forces to launch student business competitions worth Pounds 50,000 to stimulate university start-ups

Government departments strongly consider earmarking a percentage of their research and development budget to stimulate research in small high-technology companies

Universities and the new Science Enterprise Centre collaborate to equip science undergraduates and graduates with management and enterprise skills.

Opinion, page 14

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