Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The logic of research commercialisation

The world intellectual property market represents $600 billion of industrial products and processes annually.
This tantalising figure was dangled before the government and universities in 1993, when the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council conducted a study on intellectual property. Almost a decade before, even without that annual global dollar value at their fingertips, university leaders already had a sense that knowledge might be worth money. In the mid-1980s – before the Dawkins reforms – the Higher Education Supplement reported that almost all universities were establishing structures to support research commercialisation. Research and technology parks were planned, leasing property to businesses on or near campus in the expectation that proximity would facilitate links between industry, commerce and university research.  For-profit companies were created, wholly or partly owned by the universities.  On-campus business liaison offices were established, designed to both support relationships and place a barrier between businesses and reputedly less-savvy researchers.

None of this would have been new to Philip Baxter. Chapter x described Unisearch, the company set up by the University of New South Wales in the late 1950s that would facilitate interactions between industrial problems and academic research. In this respect and others, Baxter looks like the entrepreneurial academic 30 years too early. Having come from industrial science, Baxter took as his model the “world’s big science-based industries, the chemical and petroleum industries, electronics, aviation, pharmaceuticals, communications and automobiles”.  He considered “discoveries of great importance” to be practical discoveries, inventions and applied sciences.  He believed tangible economic development to be the university’s responsibility to society and thought that some sacrifice of institutional autonomy was a fair exchange for substantial government funding.  However, there are some important differences. Baxter considered “discovery” and “application” to be “not really two separate processes”.  This would have been his experience in industry, where an industrial problem would feed a scientific one, which would in turn highlight new ideas for industrial development. So when Baxter sought alliances with industry through Unisearch, his focus was not profit, it was knowledge. His patenting strategy, as the earlier chapter showed, affirmed this.

Profit, not knowledge, was the motive of universities in the 1980s. Added to last chapter’s ethic of entrepreneurialism were two opposing ideas that paradoxically converged to point universities towards the same commercial outcome. The first idea suggested that universities would become relevant and their reputations would improve if only they would engage more with the “real” (moneymaking) world – this logic, as the last chapter showed, had also informed the development of an international export market.  The second idea was that the moneymaking world was taking the universities for a ride: “Companies exploiting universities’ ideas for next to nothing”, read the headline.  Universities failed to serve the business community on one hand but on the other, the business community was getting the valuable resources they needed from universities for free. That these contradicted each other did not matter. Their convergence was convenient since it gave universities both goal and moral justification in one. Knowledge was valuable to the community. They should therefore be able to buy it. Here we see the self-fulfilling logic that research commercialisation provided. Once knowledge was for profit it seemed obvious that those who profited from it should fund it. If free inquiry made knowledge available to a profit-focused public for free then inquiry should rather be for sale. No guilt would thus be attached to the pursuit of profit in the universities, for it would correct a financial injustice and provide a service for the community.

In this spirit, university leaders instigated ambitious commercialisation strategies. It quickly became obvious that the workload of leading and managing the process of research commercialisation was high. That, along with the growing complexity of relations with Canberra, led to the establishment across the universities of Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors for research.  Offices crammed with specialised professionals were also needed for this to work. They negotiated deals, prepared contracts and agreements, advised on prototyping and development processes, and decided whether the university itself or a spin-off company would be best.  Many universities established companies like Baxter’s Unisearch, tasked with responsibility for all the university’s commercial activities.  The University of Queensland’s UniQuest was the most successful of these. Formed in 1984, UniQuest supported the university to quickly outrank all others in Australia for securing research funding through industry.  But all this energy did not go unquestioned. A review of university research commercialisation in the late 1990s said, “the biggest blockage [to commercialisation] has been traditional academic attitudes”. 

Gibbons and colleagues pointed out that the Mode 2 research that resulted from commercialised research practices carried with it some risks. Profit was not value-free. As McSherry has also argued, the university’s authority had long rested on its distinction from the pursuit of knowledge for profit.  As members of the university were at that time becoming acutely aware, university knowledge had never been as objective as the university had often tried to claim: indeed, it was widely acknowledged that value-free knowledge was impossible. As post-structuralist theories made their partial and uneven mark on thinking in and about the university, university members increasingly claimed that the modern university’s authority over knowledge had been based on a positivist lie. This led David Biggins in his Australian Society article (influential at the free-market Withering Heights symposium ) to say:
Science today is no more value-free than when Galileo sold the telescope to the wealthy merchants of Venice, pointing out its military uses in order to gain a higher salary and more research funds.
The word “value” in the 1980s and 1990s was a fraught and confused term. Operating within this confusion, Biggins suggested that value-free universities have no value. The positivist lie, he said, was “summed up in slogans”:
‘Academic freedom’, ‘objective scholarship’, and – most bizarre of all – ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’.
For universities to have any value he said, they need to admit that knowledge is “value-laden” – value now accumulating meanings associated with profit, suggesting universities forge links with society by supporting its economic development.  The logic of commercialisation was informed by a belief that the disconnect between university knowledge and the pursuit of profit was a symptom of the positivist lie. The university must now admit it has values, the new logic proclaimed. Profit (literal value), the likes of Biggins believed, was as good a value to accumulate as any.

Henry Etzkowitz, Loet Leydesdorff and colleagues, in their famous response to the Mode 2 thesis, later made a similar (though more sophisticated) argument. If universities could stop their ivory tower thinking, Etzkowitz et al claimed, they would make contributions of value. If that value was sufficient (and obviously connected to economic development), they said governments could financially justify increasing their funding.  Commercial research, they claimed, was in fact the original mission of the university, disrupted by the institutionalisation of empirical research practices in the 19th century. Economic development, they said, was an important legitimising mechanism for university knowledge as contribution to culture.  Biggins had put it more simply: “If universities can claim to produce anything of value for society it is knowledge.”  Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff attached a productive metaphor of a triple helix that they hoped would replace the phrase Mode 2. This triple helix relationship between government, industry and universities metaphorically claimed vital productivity by its analogy to DNA: their relationship was supposed to be the living, growing building blocks of knowledge. Universities did not need to worry about conflicts derived from commercial priorities of profit versus a scholarly prioritisation of knowledge, in their model. The helix was unstable, dynamic and enabled relentless renegotiations of knowledge and intellectual property between parties all now motivated by profit, but to whom profit somehow “means different things”.  Values, they seemed to believe, were stable and incorruptible despite their proximity to profit-motives. In the end they were also unimportant, constructed and relative. The only shared value was profit.

Bruno Latour says that when it came to social constructivism the most common mistake academics made was to think that construction itself was the interesting thing. It was not, he says.  What was interesting about the fact that ideas were socially constructed was not that they had no value or were of equal value, but was rather that they enabled new questions about value to be raised: was that idea constructed well or poorly? Why was that mode of construction selected in these instances over another?  For Biggins (who is of course just an example of some of the logic that fed research commercialisation), that universities were not value-free suggested that any values would do. Latour’s work would require us to ask: what would be the impact of shifting to profit-focused values, rather than “admitting” (to use Biggins’ own language) to other values? Perhaps Biggins himself provided the answer:
 Universities are barely distinguishable from any other government or privately funded think-tank. They espouse the same values, do the same job, serve the same political masters.
With research commercialisation, there eventually would be no distinction between university knowledge and commercial research and development.

However, despite the claims, pressures, incentives and insults, many academics (indeed, commercialisation advocates estimated that as many as two-thirds of them) were not persuaded. A 1999 review of technology transfer and intellectual property across 37 universities reported myriad “attitude problems” were holding up change.  Many persisted in an irritating preference for “conventional” means of communicating research – publication and conference presentation, they explained.  At one university, they puzzled over staff who considered a commercial reputation damaging to academics’ standing – a standing that had long been based, as shown repeatedly in this thesis, on its distinction from commercial enterprise.

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