Ian Macfarlane had a Brandis moment this week when he called for grants to be awarded on the basis of patents rather than scientific articles. Like the attorney-general trying to explain metadata, the Australian industry minister waded into waters where he was completely out of his depth.
When it comes to giving taxpayers’ money to researchers, he said:
We might think about realigning block grants to commercial outcomes, and awarding them to universities not on the basis of how many papers they’ve had published, but actually on how many patents they’ve had registered.
With very little idea of the implications of what he was proposing, Macfarlane expanded his bright idea: “This is not rocket science; just about every other country in the world is doing it. So watch this space.”
Clearly, there’s tension between the industry minister and the education minister – Christopher Pyne actually runs research policy, and Macfarlane is seeking to reassert himself after setbacks within the government. But he completely misses the point about research – which is that it is the pursuit of new knowledge. As Einstein said, “If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be called research.”
Curiosity-driven research, supported by peer review, goes beyond mere instrumentalism – the best ideas are often generated by the search for new knowledge in a totally unrelated area. Wi-Fi is the classic example: fantastic everyday technology that came about through CSIRO’s research in radio astronomy, which was unrelated to its ultimate application.
In Macfarlane’s world, whole branches of discovery would never have been funded. And as for the suggestion that this is what “every other country in the world is doing”, this is simply not the case.
In fact, because research is a global community, if the minister’s idea were to be accepted, it would see a flight of researchers from Australia because it’s such a departure from the established practice of research funding organisations in comparable countries. His patent proposition raises a host of questions, not least, why would anyone deliberately set out to create a patent lawyers’ picnic?
It’s dead easy to file a patent – no great skill is required. How does this make a researcher worthy of receiving a government grant? At the same time, excellent research doesn’t necessarily end in a patent, and where it does, genuinely useful patents can take years – often decades – to be realised. Nor can patented inventions always be attributed to one particular research project or input.
As the University of Tasmania’s submission to the Senate’s innovation inquiry pointed out, patents are expensive to maintain and not necessarily reflective of commercial opportunity. If you add in an incentive – in the forms of grants – that would only encourage more “vanity” patent applications for inventions which are not likely to be commercialised.
As well as being easy to manipulate as a research indicator, patents are a poor metric because they are no longer an important indicator of innovation in fast-moving areas like ICT. Software companies are not going to waste time preparing a patent when, by the time they get one, the world has moved on to the next iteration of the product. Tying grants to patents would just lead to more and more filings generally, without regard to the commercial viability of the invention.
For successful commercialisation of university IP, there must be some interest in the invention in the commercial world, and there must be mechanisms for bringing the IP to the attention of a company with an interest in developing and commercialising it. Government policy should focus on creating an environment where these partnerships are facilitated, through programs such as Researchers in Business and the CRC program, with strong IP protection as another key ingredient.
If the government really wants to create jobs (other than for patent attorneys), providing incentives for researchers and their partners who are trying to commercialise inventions would be far more effective. On the business side of that equation, we already have a problem-solving research program called the R&D Tax Incentive, which increasing numbers of companies are using. Nonsensically, the government has cut this program and axed a number of other research and industry programs.
If the Abbott government wants to encourage greater collaboration between researchers and business, it need look no further than at Labor’s $500m innovation precincts initiative, part of the Plan for Australian Jobs, and the other highly successful innovation programs that it has scrapped.
This opinion piece was first published in The Guardian on Friday, 8August 2014.