The benefits of research aren’t just economic

Research is a public good in itself, not only for the benefit of creating jobs and economic prosperity. Flickr/International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, CC BY-SA

Forcing research and innovation to fit corporate needs exclusively sounds like a pretty blunt way to govern how public funds are awarded and used in universities.

Granted, in a political environment touting austerity, it is difficult to argue with the need to create more jobs in Australia if one way to do that is to redirect the results of taxpayer-funded research out of the public domain and into privately owned enterprise.

Yet to compel universities to commercialise research by rewarding the registration of patents only is to bulldoze in a very cramped image of what actually constitutes the full spectrum of pure, strategic, applied and experimental research. Only one of those — applied research — is aimed at an outcome that might serve a client-directed purpose. Yet all four kinds of research play a vital role in creating knowledge.

Statements about the importance of increasing job security for everyone are fairly easy to understand. So too are the calls for greater interaction between research and industry. With an estimated 80% of Australian university researchers working under short-term or casual contracts (some with the dreaded one-hour hire or fire clause), it would be a reasonable claim that most workers in the higher education sector comprehend these two things just as well as the next person.

But there are complex issues surrounding the proposal that the work of researchers should be regulated to prioritise business outcomes only. If the commercialisation of research and patents was to be the sole standard that means success and ongoing government endorsement, then thorny questions crowd in.

Universities aren’t factories

In what way should publicly funded institutions be able to grant licences to business for research and innovation that has been paid for by taxpayer money? What impact might a focus on patenting and commercialisation have on the public mandate of universities?

How can the government’s open access policy, which is to ensure the widest possible uptake of research supported by the public purse, ever be truly fulfilled if an equally contradictory grant framework is in place that instead favours and rewards the transfer of intellectual property into business hands only? And how will the direction of research be affected in those peer-reviewed disciplines centred on increasing our knowledge of humanity, culture and society?

For obvious reasons, many businesses tend to be highly profit-driven. It is a world in which the bottom line plays a crucial role in the decision-making process. Such decisions can be about whether to begin manufacturing a new product, or to replenish the supply of stock, or to promote a new brand to untapped markets.

Here, innovation in the corporate sector is most prized when it can help increase earnings from consumer purchasing behaviour. Moreover, to protect market share, corporate research is often conducted in – and usually remains shrouded in – secrecy.

Not all subjects worthy of research can produce patents. Flickr/Krista Kennedy, CC BY

As a way of blocking competition from other firms in the market, registering a patent can be an effective way to inhibit the broader diffusion of a commercial idea or discovery. This is because a patent prevents other companies from using it without permission or a licensing fee. Just witness the on-again off-again lawsuits between the major smartphone makers as each company has asserted its intellectual property interests against its competitors. Not all of this benefits the public.

These values of profit making and maintaining a competitive edge in the economy, which underpin market activity in the private sector, are not equivalent to the values that spur contemporary research.

The movement in universities worldwide for greater open access to research literature and data, which the Australian government currently supports in principle through its Australia Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council policies, is just one illustration. So too are Creative Commons Australia, the Australian Open Access Support Group and other principles of openness, which embrace the unlocking, sharing, re-use and adaption of intellectual property (with appropriate attribution) in much digital humanities research and development.

Research in itself is a public good

It is a general rule of thumb that there should be as few barriers as possible to sharing knowledge between researchers and other stakeholders in order to strengthen evidence-based decision-making. Otherwise the research-practice gap, or the disparity between what is known in research and what is actually done in the world, will only widen.

It is also worth mentioning that the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) program, now in its third stocktake of Australian universities, already recognises patents as just one of several indicators of high-quality research activity. For sure, the Higher Education Research Data Collection scheme, which the government uses to determine annual allocations of block grant funding to the university sector, could do with a much more inclusive scope than its current focus on books, chapters, journal articles and conference proceedings only. But this would mean adding patents and commercialisation to the mix, along with other indicators of research generation, rather than merely replacing one presently narrow scope with an even narrower one-standard-fits-all regime.

I’ve argued previously that the research sector is in need of a more diverse ecosystem of valued research outputs that go beyond the present rule of printed products. It requires an array of different formats to communicate research findings in modes that value public engagement using digital technologies and open formats. These should be valued as much as communicating results to other scholars via publication.

I am referring here to the ERA grouping of innovative and public-facing work into the category of “Non-Traditional Research Outputs” - the NTRO. I would prefer this to be understood instead as “Now Taking Research Outside”.

It is not unreasonable for the public to expect more visibility of the economic and social returns that taxpayer investment in research delivers. I agree that printed papers are not always the most convenient means to demonstrate this. But neither are patents, which realise their greatest commercial potential through embedding a research result into a licensed product. This means the public pays twice if the research was originally taxpayer funded and then subsequently made available only for sale.

Without doubt, business firms and private enterprise are significant and important partners in research but they share that space with another important stakeholder, namely the public. This requires balancing the protection of research results with the need for public access and public outcomes.