Tuesday, 14 August 2012

More regulation will not encourage innovation


Unsurprisingly given the state of the world economy there have been a number of pieces asking questions about the ability of large corporations to innovate - see for example Felix Salmon on Reuters (http://t.co/V31EDyhn).

However the most recent I have seen is Peter Wilby's piece in the Guardian (http://bit.ly/Ryp78U). His diagnosis is that business, particularly "big pharma", is suffering from an innovation crisis that can be cured by additional regulation. He suggests that this would steer "rent-seekers" away from marketing and PR toward research and development and consequently job creating and socially beneficial technologies. In my opinion more regulation is unlikely to stimulate innovation in big companies.

The development of new therapeutics remains a high risk and expensive business, despite the huge increase in our knowledge of human physiology and disease. The cost of failure is substantial, and the opportunities to make a return are generally limited to the lifetime of patents. The expectation of our society is that we will increasingly develop personalised treatment regimes for acute and chronic conditions in an ageing population. Thus, with the days of the blockbuster drug numbered, new therapeutics will individually deliver more modest returns, but without any immediate prospect for a concomitant reduction in the costs of development, some of which are directly attributable to over-regulation. This may provide the stimulus for innovation, but it is also possible that shareholders, investors and business people, will decide that there are less risky ways to make a return on investment.

There is no doubt that we need to encourage a greater appetite for creativity and innovation, and that removing incentives to other patterns of behaviour are important. However for complex areas of societal importance and public concern such as healthcare, we need to ensure that there is a credible and sustainable business model. That means incentivising innovation, removing unnecessary regulatory barriers, sharing the risk between the public and private sector and ensuring that there is sufficient opportunity for investors to make a return. In the absence of such thinking we will be unable to promote the level of innovation required to address the complex challenges of modern society.

No room for Fool’s Gold when it comes to the British economy


Our sports stars have done us proud this summer - never mind Tour de France - its been a Tour de Force. There will no doubt be political squabbles over the immediate economic benefit of London 2012 but the British public have received a feelgood factor that in itself is a pretty good return on investment. Its certainly been enough to temporarily take our take most people's minds off the double dip recession.

To my mind, the Government could do worse than seek inspiration from TeamGB when it comes to the economy – they have systematically combined determination, planning, smart training and teamwork to lead a ruthlessly competitive international pack in a tough competition. We need to learn from this impressive display if we are going to power our way back to sustainable growth for UK.

The Government has persisted with a one-dimensional approach to economic fitness – trying unsuccessfully to shed a few pounds through a diet of austerity and the same old training regime of quantitative easing. It’s not working and a more sophisticated approach is needed. There have been recent calls, including most notably by Boris Johnson, for us to invest in the UK's infrastructure. He's right.

It seems obvious to me that we must create infrastructure which will entice the most creative and brightest minds from across the world to the UK – especially entrepreneurs. We must also ensure that they generate jobs; a skilled and experienced workforce is as vital a part of infrastructure for business as transport and broadband.

The success of Team GB was epitomised by the sustained success of cyclists. Even if our economy had the yellow jersey or a gold medal, we can’t afford the luxury of resting on our laurels. We need to invest in the future if we are to create a gold-plated British economy.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Universities need to be open and accessible to business

Warnings from the IMF, our GDP plummeting – our economy is in bad shape and the Government, it seems, is bereft of ideas about how to put it right. Austerity, apparently, seems to be the only game in town – yet now, more than ever, we need bold leadership and radical thinking about how to get back on track. We need an economic game changer and we are incredibly fortunate to have a platform from which we can launch it – our universities.

It largely goes unnoticed that our universities are world-class intellectual powerhouses, some of the very best on the globe at researching and discovering, inventing and innovating. As a country we seem to be intent on ignoring the extraordinary asset which could help us rebuild our crumbling economy.

Let me be clear: I am not a proponent of directing academics away from blue-sky research towards second-rate contract research for the highest bidder. I am passionate about the long term economic, social and cultural value of intellectual exploration through curiosity-driven research. But there seems to be a commonly held view that if you wish to preserve academic freedom, it’s impossible to provide any substantial economic benefit to the UK, and that attempting to do so will create profound damage to our research base.

I simply don't buy that argument – we already do make a major contribution to GDP. Yet we can do so much more if academics engage even more extensively with business. We should be using the base of our Higher Education sector to help our businesses innovate and grow, to encourage overseas corporations to invest in the UK and to create jobs for UK citizens. Many academics already do collaborate with business, recognizing that it can enrich and enhance the quality of scholarly work. Such interactions will become increasingly important to the academy, if we are to remain competitive in the global business that is higher education. We want more of our universities in the top 20 global leaders.

The Government started well in 2010 by protecting the research budget – a tall order but essential given that our competitors are investing much more into research. What is frustrating is we are not joined-up in using our assets for the best interests of the UK. Research activity generates highly trained staff, data, knowledge, and intellectual property and we should use them to our competitive advantage. take data and information - we all know the benefits of seeing new developments first, from academics who attend the latest conference to see unpublished work to businesses who have always recognised the importance of technology adoption and first-mover advantage

The question, then, is why, when we create some of the best knowledge and IP in the world, are we intent on pursuing initiatives such as Easy Access IP and Gold open access, without giving due consideration to the benefits for our economy. I am not opposed to the underlying principles of these initiatives, but in some cases they are unnecessary and in others they are unlikely to work. At worst they could mean that, as a nation, we will spend more money, do less research and accrue less economic benefit for the UK.

In my view, we can be smarter than this and use these assets as part of a package of measures to collectively make the UK the most attractive place for businesses committed to generating jobs and growth here.

We should create a network of research and innovation enterprise zones across the nation; places where large corporations could work alongside SMEs and university researchers from across sectors, rubbing shoulders, exchanging ideas and researching and innovating together. This would generate exciting new discoveries and then ensure their transformation at lightning speed into products, jobs and growth in the UK, for the UK. I’m not simply talking about science parks – but genuine research and innovation accelerators,promoting inward investment on scale and generating thousands of jobs.

The government would need to offer significant incentives to achieve this goal, perhaps including reduced corporation tax and flexibility on VAT to allow sharing of spaces. University researchers could make their research outputs preferentially available for a fixed period, perhaps alongside the embargo period of a green open access policy, providing an early view and hence opportunities for early uptake. We could also use these zones to pilot new ideas to liberate us from the stranglehold of red tape and burdensome regulation around employment law, immigration policies, procurement and others, which currently inhibit entrepreneurs and stifle growth.

Finally, the main assets of our universities are our people. It is people who innovate, collaborate and discover, not institutions. We need to nurture this talent and to boost innovation through enabling academics to gain exposure to new and different techniques in different settings. We need to enable people from across universities – from Professors, to Post-docs to PhD students – to move more freely amongst different types of institutions than is currently possible. We could establish a scheme whereby high-fliers rotate around a selection of small business, larger companies and university research departments to gain a variety of experience to develop new ways of innovating.

We are going to see profound changes in the next few years. The shift in economic power is clear and growing – and the signs are there for similar shifts in the global market place of higher education. We can chose to maintain a 19th Century view of higher education, or we can recognise academic research can be enhanced by serious collaboration with external enterprises. We must be bold and recognise that the depth of our knowledge base provides a competitive advantage that most countries are desperately trying to emulate, because they know that it creates enormous economic, social and cultural value. We have the opportunity of a generation to build a sustainable economy for the 21st century – but we need to open our eyes and seize the opportunity.

A version of this article was published on the Guardian HE Network at http://bit.ly/RjfomA

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Open access to academic research

Open access – it’s a subject that gets many academic hearts racing. There has been an enthusiastic debate about the subject, especially now that the Government has recommended the adoption of gold level open access. For the interested observer, it might seem that there are two camps: those pioneers enthusiastic to move to this new world of openness for the advancement of scientific research, and then the others – like me – who oppose the move to a publicly funded gold option.

However, I think that despite the apparent conflict, it is likely most of us interested in research want a similar outcome, a sustainable publishing model that allows the timely disclosure of research at the lowest possible costs to the funders – often tax payers – and the users of research. The two camps differ, though, in how this aim might be achieved.

The heart of the disagreement lies in the merit of adoption of gold open access as part of a move to change the model of publishing. In this case, authors are required to pay a significant up-front access fee per article to allow all and sundry to read the papers. It is hard to provide an accurate estimate of the cost, but irrespective of the number, the science minister David Willetts is reported to have commented, "I think there's a massive net economic benefit here way beyond any £50m from the science budget."

Yet despite these bold words, I cannot see how the adoption of gold open access will accrue benefit to the UK economy. If that is a serious aspiration, then a serious discussion is needed on how preferential access can help British business and the British economy.

The benefits of moving to gold open access include the following: publishers will be in receipt of both access charges and subscription fees; UK researchers will be able to make available their work to anyone who wishes to read it immediately on publication; it will stimulate other countries to follow suit; the article is available in journal format which may make it easier to find through searching tools; it requires no substantial additional work on the part of the academic research community.

Those, like me, who question the adoption of the gold approach, funded by the taxpayer, generally favour the green approach in which the author is allowed to make a version of their paper available online after an embargo period.

The benefits of this approach are that publishers will continue to be in receipt of subscription charges; UK researchers will be able to make available their work to anyone who wishes to read it after an embargo period; and it will stimulate others countries to follow suit without additional access charges.

So the question remains, do we need to invest public funds into gold open access as a step towards achieving the overall goal of provision of a sustainable publishing model - or will green be more effective? My opinion is that at this stage, green offers a better option because it is likely to be lower cost to the funders of research.

The debate about academic publishing is incredibly important and of course, very little of this post addresses the real concerns about publishing in non-scientific areas which must be addressed. However, this current debate about gold versus green is really just the start:neither fully address the issues around disclosure of scientific research, and both options offer only an incremental change to the accessibility of research outcomes.

If we are to make research outcomes readily available in a timely fashion, then we will need to change the culture of academic publishing and disclosure. For example, much research never gets published because it is incomplete, or because the author does not get around to it, or editors and referees reject manuscripts which may then not be submitted or published elsewhere. Some would argue that such material has little value and so it does not matter if it is not published; I don't believe it is quite so clear cut.

These are all real barriers to accessibility of information that may be of value - and these barriers exist because where and how we publish underpins career advancement, grant funding and academic standing. But it means that if we really want a publishing revolution we might need a slightly more radical model, where funders require academics not simply to publish in journals offering open access options, but open publishing, where there is no (or minimal) immediate cost of access or publication. Such models are available, but I am not sure that we as an academic community are yet ready to give up on the current value system. So until we do so, it seems that a green option is a pragmatic and cost effective next step.