28 July 2008

Change in universities, “technology transfer”, and the commercial world: a summary

By Robert Miller

This is a summary of my essay 'Change in Universities, “Technology Transfer”, and the Commercial World: An Irreconcilable Clash of Cultures?', published here in June 2008.

The world currently faces unprecedented economic challenges, whose solution will require far-reaching innovations, in which universities, government research institutes, and commercial industries large and small, must all work together. In the last twenty years, in the UK and New Zealand (countries on which this essay primarily focuses), a style of university administration has developed, with excesses of both managerialism and demands for accountability which prevent real innovation from emerging. In their research role, this has placed short-term aims above more fundamental long-term initiatives. University staff spend too much time and effort on tasks which detract from these more important goals. This has been demoralizing and insulting. It undermines trust within universities, the integrity of scientists, the public appreciation of science, and, increasingly, it undermines science itself.

Practical implementation of basic research done in universities (often commercial, but not necessarily so) has almost always required a set of skills, experience and habits of thought quite different from those of the scientists from whom the basic ideas originate. Often practical applications originate with people who know the human face of real practical problems, rather than from the basic researchers. When fundamental research is turned to practical uses, it usually requires talents in addition to those of persons doing the fundamental research.

Much academic research can be criticized, because it is now dominated by “game-play”, entirely internal to itself, serving a number of vested interests (not least the publishing industry). Its proper function, that of providing new understanding, from which practical solutions may emerge, is, to an ever-increasing extent, ignored. Such “game-play” is exaggerated by the Research Assessment Exercise, and its equivalent in other countries, but was going on long before those policies were instituted. For far too long, leaders in academia have turned a blind eye to this; and now academia pays the price. The historic tradition of science is thus now to a large extent subverted. Until university researchers can address such criticisms, they become an easy target for excessive government control. Since the world of academic science is now international, this will require rethinking many of the national and international ways in which science is organized. This is already beginning to occur, with the increasing importance of open access, internet-based journals, with less exacting (or even no) peer review. Not least, a correct balance (and interaction) between theory and experiment needs to be achieved, especially in biomedicine and biotechnology. This would enable progress both in basic understanding, and in its practical applications to proceed more quickly, more securely and more cheaply than at present. The era of fundamental physics between 1890 and 1940 is a superb example of such fruitful interplay at its pinnacle, from which many other disciplines should learn.

In relation to “technology transfer”, the proper role of university research, especially in new fields like biotechnology, should mainly be to provide a large “well” of expertise, covering a very wide range of subjects, regardless of its commercial potential (which cannot be judged in advance). Technology transfer in biotechnology differs from that based on the physical sciences. In the former case, predictions for practical applications arising from basic knowledge are far less exact and certain than those in physics-based technology. This means that there must be much more effort in testing actual usefulness, long after the basic principles have been formulated. This in turn has implications for the way biotechnology should be organized, requiring styles different from those found useful in technology based on the physical sciences.

The practical development of basic science, which may require much larger investment than the basic research, and sometimes very big risks, requires fostering a culture of mutual respect, and regular communication at many levels, and on equal footing, between academia and the commercial world. Effective deployment of basic research in the form of practical applications is most likely to arise if such a climate of continual dialogue between academia and the commercial world is achieved. This will require change in attitudes within academia; but it will also require increasing openness and transparency within the commercial world, and adoption within that world of some of the ethos traditionally associated with universities. This is already starting to occur. In UK such a climate of mutuality and regular interaction between academia and the commercial world has not developed very well over many generations, because of radically differing attitudes within the two worlds. Examples where it worked well were in Germany (1830-1880), a period when many of our modern university traditions developed, and in more recent times in USA (based on local  state-wide  rather than nation-wide interaction between universities and commerce).

Large industrial enterprises can often be criticised, because of their focus on their own commercial success, negating what should be the real objectives of their industry (which wider society requires), and sometimes operating way beyond any democratic control. There should be the possibility of greater public influence on such industries, since in part they use taxpayers’ money, or rely on previous basic research carried out in universities at taxpayers’ expense.

To provide inspiration to young people about the values of science and the technological benefits to which it leads, and to warn against the moral failures of uncontrolled large-scale technology, education in universities, for both would-be scientists, and would-be business people, should include important background courses on the history of past successes of technology, as well as honest discussion of some of its past moral failures.

Robert Miller
University of Otago
New Zealand

The author’s research has been on the theory of brain functions, and its relevance to major mental illness, especially schizophrenia. This essay is also based on the author's reading more widely in the history of science and technology.


Philip Moriarty said...

Dear Robert,

Thank you for writing this thoughtful, scholarly, informative, and inspiring piece. I recommend that anyone with an interest in the relationship between technological development, innovation, and science policy (including Philip Esler et al. at RCUK) should read your essay. Where do you plan to publish it?

Although we perhaps have divergent views with regard to the value of fundamental research - I am firmly of the opinion that science with no "practical"/ technological application is of immense value to civilisation - I am otherwise in strong agreement with practically everything you write.

Your discussion of academic freedom and freedom of enquiry will resonate particularly well with those of us at the University of Nottingham who are appalled at the university's knee-jerk and draconian response in the Hicham Yezza/Rizwaan Sabir case.

Once again, thanks for writing this fantastic article.