Science, Governments, and Knowledge Transfer

October 15, 2010

I just gave my talk at this year’s ROE workshop, on Applications of Astronomy.  The meeting was full of fascinating examples of the links between astronomical technology and the wider world – in biomedical imaging, the development of fusion energy, airport security, and so on. As most of you will know, the RAS report, Big Science for the Big Society, has lots more wonderful examples. As a community, we should keep up the PR effort. We need to get these stories out.

However I found myself musing on the whole “Knowledge Exchange” thing and where it has come from. Here is my cartoon history.

Stagnating Britain. Starting in the fifties, and accelerating through the seventies and eighties, there was a widespread feeling that Britain’s industrial prowess was declining. At the same time, our scientific prowess was burgeoning, and public spending on research was growing. (It levelled off in the seventies and has waved up and down since.) Why didn’t brainpower and economic performance go together ? What was UK Ltd getting for all that research money ?

Close the Ivory Towers. The consistent government  view seemed to be that the problem was that our brilliant ideas were not getting out of the universities. In other words, the problem was in the transmitters rather than the receivers. Academics were stuck in their ivory towers. We needed to change the behaviour of scientists, so that they would think more about wealth creation.

Academic reaction to this pressure was diverse, coming in three forms :

  1. Get off my back. Hey, we’re good at our jobs – why are you criticising us ? The problem is that industry is too timid, and doesn’t spend enough on R&D.
  2. Let me explain. Actually, ideas do get out, and we already do plenty of commercialisation. We need better PR.
  3. You’re right. We owe the taxpayer more than they are getting. The academic-industrial system as a whole clearly isn’t as good as, say Silicon Valley, or turn of century Germany.

California Dreaming. Why has the US been better at this enterprise culture stuff ? Two simple things stand out. The first is easy movement between academia and industry and back. Happens all the time. The second is willingness to take risks. Venture capitalists and government agencies expect that most projects will fail. Otherwise you don’t get anything interesting, right ?

Modern Britain. So what’s changed in recent years ? The first thing is that economic prowess returned to the UK, but not in manufacturing, or resource extraction. We are good at services, finance, technology, entertainment – and science. The second thing is that there are good funding schemes to encourage academic-industrial partnerships. The third thing is that in at least some sections of Government there is a much improved, and broader, understanding of how science makes an impact. It ain’t just widgets. It can be :

  1. Output of skilled people
  2. Shared technology development
  3. Long term fundamental impact (eg electricity, the Web)
  4. Acting as demanding customer
  5. Dissemination of techniques and technology
  6. Inventions, patents, licenses, and spinouts

Its still your fault. However, despite this improved understanding of the issues, there is still pressure to make academics change their ways. RCUK has a whole website devoted to this, called Pathways to Impact. And, as all my astronomer friends know, every grant application has to include a 2 page “impact plan” covering both Outreach and Knowledge Exchange. Wearing my AGP hat, and without going into details of course, I am happy to re-assure you that Scientific Excellence remains the dominant thing – but the question remains, should everybody have to do this ? On the other hand, and again without going into details, the KE activity of some applicants is extremely good. How can we reward this without at the same time punishing people who don’t do it ?

Questions. So I find a few questions left hovering in the air :

  1. Should we insist that all scientists become more enterprise aware ?
  2. If so, how do we encourage that change ? Carrot or stick ?
  3. How do we reward enterprise without distorting the scientific process ?