The government is to examine the opportunities for public sector research establishments to increase the commercial exploitation of their work. But union chiefs are concerned that the move will squeeze research funds further at the institutes.
The previous government conducted a series of prior options reviews that looked at about 40 public sector research establishments with a view to privatisation. Most of the reviews recommended that the research institutes should stay in the public sector but should better exploit their work.
"(This announcement) is very much a continuation of the previous policy," said Valerie Ellis, assistant general secretary of the Institute of Professional Managers and Specialists, which represents researchers at the institutes and which campaigned against privatisation. Although detailed figures of establishments' research income have yet to be announced following the comprehensive spending review, she believes that funding will continue to be squeezed and that pressure will be put on the institutes to increase their income through commercial activities.
Many of the establishments covered by the announcement have already produced commercial spin-offs. For example, the cloning of Dolly the sheep was carried out jointly by scientists from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh and PPL Therapeutics, a company formed in 1987 to commercialise technology developed by Roslin.
After Dolly, Roslin established a second company, Roslin BioMed, to exploit the nuclear transfer technology that was used to create the clone.
Meanwhile the world's largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, is creating a business subsidiary to commercialise its researchers' results. Catalyst BioMedica will give business advice to researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust. It will be launched officially in the autumn.