Under the microscope: The ivory powerhouse

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The Independent Culture
In the past decade, academic scientists have had to face the same change in mind-set as the gentry of the last century, braced to marry into trade to finance their money-thirsty life-styles. The late-20th century analogue looming for scientists is an equally defiant spectre: the costs of employing an increasingly sophisticated technological infrastructure.

Disillusioned with being assessed by rivals in a network-riddled, financially pressed public sector, researchers have turned to private fund-ing. For those whose work leads, to coin Francis Bacon's term, not just to experiments that shed light ("experientia lucifera") but fortuitously to those that bear fruit ("experientia fructifera"), there has been a new lease of laboratory life.

This wooing of industry, though, has led to upturned noses and downturned mouths. Perhaps the most legitimate anxiety is that the fruit will no longer be a happy wind-fall of a light-shedding exercise, but will be the main crop. Despite careful agreements ensuring that the money goes to realising ideas originated by scientists, the purists might still argue that the temptation will be to look away from the blue sky to more down- to-earth projects.

In my experience, mould-breaking, paradigm-shifting ideas stand no chance with the cautious public sector grandees. Paradoxically, "crazy" ideas are more likely to be funded by a competitive market aware that a "me- too" approach is commercially barren: companies are realising that it is the projects that are so heretical they pass as "non-applied" today, that are imaginative enough to constitute the foundations of the innovative products of the future.

But why let the industrial giants make money from our ingenuity? Why not arrange for university science findings to earn money for the gaping coffers of academe - and for the individual inventors who might then act as role models for a demoralised constituency?

What is needed to realise this vision are professionally run technology transfer companies. Using the US, inevitably, as a model, expectations could run into the sums quoted for the top 10 American universities, which are attracting an annual income of, on average, $19m apiece.

Rich universities may have an easier time than others in raising the crucial initial capital. But irrespective of internal wealth, a further source might be the government, through the research council's directing some funds away from financing individual peer-reviewed projects. The funds could be used to pay for obvious costs such as patents and salaries; but could also provide for a fund to help bridge the gap between a research project and a product. Such a contribution would enable the companies to start plying their trade at the professional level. All too often, an ambitious and novel projects must, for protection of intellectual property, be kept outside the public domain while requiring further development in order to bring the work to a stage appropriate for attracting a licensee - or even for initiating a spin-off company.

As well as backing the safe-bet projects, the public sector could then be making a move towards allowing universities to act as venture capitalists. This manoeuvre might be viewed as one akin to the aristocrat's daughter not marrying a merchant, so much as eloping with the chimney sweep. But if lack of funds for promotion of the ingenuity that's been the hallmark of British science, is Scylla, then Charybdis must surely be the fallacious concept of the scientific soul sold down the river to Mammon.