Making research pay

15 Apr 2004

Compared to big-ticket items such as health and transport, scientific research comes a long way down the list of public expenditure items. Still, the amount is far from trivial, with the Government committing over €2.48bn to research in the National Development Plan, 2000 – 2006.

This investment is sorely needed. Ireland’s intellectual property (IP) output is poor compared with other countries. In 1999, Ireland held approximately 13 patents per million population compared to Finland (75 per million), Denmark (45 per million) and the EU, the US and Japan at 35, 52 and 90 per million respectively.

With such a lot of money on the line, however, the Government has for some time been exerting pressure on the research community to put systems in place to ensure that the funding generates optimum value for the economy as a whole. The newly published Code of Practice for Managing Intellectual Property from Publicly Funded Research is the result.

Developed by the Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI) in consultation with the third-level sector, the Code provides Ireland’s first blueprint for commercialising publicly funded research.

The Tánaiste, Mary Harney TD (pictured), along with over 200 academics, university staff and government officials, attended its official launch last week in the august surroundings of the Royal College of Surgeons on St Stephen’s Green.

Harney has been a long-time champion of science and technology and a regular recipient of toe-curling eulogies from an appreciative sector – the glowing tribute paid her by Dr Edward Walsh, chairman of ICTSI and president emeritus of the University of Limerick, at this event being only the latest example.

While graciously accepting his plaudits, Harney made it very clear that the funds that she had fought so hard for would have to be accounted for and justified.

“I think if the funding means anything, it means that new discoveries and applications should be applied as quickly as possible,” she commented. “It would be a shame if the money that’s invested was wasted because we didn’t have a system in place for commercialising research.”

Disclosing that she had requested that the Council embark immediately on the next phase of work to develop guidelines for the management of intellectual property from public-private co-funded research and to report by the year-end, she continued: “Our substantial research investments will generate many new discoveries and applications with commercial and industrial potential. Our aim must be to excel at translating these ideas and applications into the wealth-generating commercial world and boost our competitiveness.”

The key to commercialising research is risk, or rather the containment of it, she said. “In my view if you don’t have certainty in relation to the protection of intellectual property you won’t get investment. People are not going to invest unless the IP can be protected. It was the case in the past that a lot of discoveries were not commercialised or applied in industry because the IP issues weren’t resolved.”

On a cautionary note, she added that public funds would be withheld from universities and other public research institutes that failed to comply with the new guidelines. It is nominally a voluntary agreement between all the stakeholders but the Tánaiste made it clear that research bodies would be given little headroom in how they apply it. “Although it is voluntary, it’s voluntary with a compulsory or contractual element to ensure it is enforced,” she warned.

The Code addresses each aspect of the management and transfer of knowledge from universities, institutes of technology and other public research organisations to the commercial marketplace.

Its main provisions are that:

– Universities and other public research organisations should have a written policy on technology transfer and commercialisation of research

– Technology transfer offices should be an integral part of research organisations and be responsible for advising on marketing and negotiating commercialisation opportunities

– The protection of IP should be seen as merely a step in the commercialisation process and not an end in itself

– Technology transfer should be the result of a partnership between the technology transfer office, researchers and commercial partners

– Each research institution should have a published incentives policy, including provisions for sharing benefits with inventors

Ena Prosser, chair of the ICSTI working group on IP, said the Code was designed to iron out the bottlenecks in getting ideas to market, such as those relating to patents. “Patents are a very important aspect of IP… If companies have to have to negotiate separate [licensing] agreements with different institutions, it’s a disincentive for them to go across the threshold of the campus. For me, the goal is having a single system and timelines that encourage industry to cross the threshold… Unless we put in place clear, transparent and attractive systems for industry to work with academics in the longer term we’re not going to maximise our return on investment.”

Dr Edward Walsh contrasted Europe’s poor record in commercialising research with the US, where the research institutes had been transformed into “ideas factories” following the passing of the landmark Bayh-Dole legislation in 1982, which paved the way for large-scale federal funding of research.

Walsh argued that the new Code could provide the foundation for Ireland to take a similar lead in Europe.

“When we sat down to develop the code, we were convinced that Ireland could retain competitive advantage if it moved ahead, not necessarily slavishly following the US model but developing an appropriate European one and I think this is already proving to be the case. The [European] Commission are noting what is happening here in Dublin and I think Ireland is perhaps taking a lead in developing this Code.”

By Brian Skelly