Key people in government departments and senior managers in public-sector laboratories have only sketchy knowledge of the value of patents and licences on these, according to Professor William Stewart, the Government's chief scientific adviser. 'There is ignorance and misunderstanding about the way the patent system works,' he said.
He urged higher education institutions to make more use of patent professionals when he spoke at the launch yesterday of the first specialist report by the Office of Science and Technology, set up after the general election.
Inventions ripe for exploitation by industry are passed over by scientists and their managers, according to Ted Blake, director of marketing and information services at the London Patent Office. He said that on a recent visit to one leading research organisation, its director said none of his scientists' work would be of interest to anyone outside their laboratories. 'He simply could not take a step back to see the commercial application of those inventions in other areas,' Mr Blake said.
Professor Stewart held up Imperial College, London, and Strathclyde University as being good at commercial exploitation. Imperial College has adopted a firm stance on ownership of intellectual property, and has even been criticised by industry for driving too hard a bargain. The college complains that industry has scavenged the universities for lucrative ideas for too long without due payment.
British science has a less than glowing track record on patenting scientific findings. Missed opportunities include monoclonal antibodies, discovered by scientists at the government-financed Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge. These have found almost universal application in over-the- counter pregnancy tests, but were largely exploited by companies in the United States.
But Robert Jackson, the Under-Secretary of State responsible for science, said yesterday that there had been some successes. These included synthetic 'pyrethroid' insecticides developed from African daisies by scientists at the Agricultural and Food Research Council's Rothamstead research station in Hertfordshire. Annual sales of such insecticides amount to about pounds 780m - at least half of which is based on the Rothamstead compounds.
The report points out that it is not enough simply to patent an invention. Scientists must make sure their ideas are licensed to industrial companies that are going to make use of their discoveries. 'Scientists must be generators as well as consumers of the nation's wealth,' Professor Stewart said.
He said the universities must be prepared to spend money on spotting their exploitable ideas. 'Unless they put the money in place they are unlikely to reap the rewards,' he said. Mr Jackson added: 'It is a matter of priority - not least because this is a potential source of income.'
Intellectual Property in the Public Sector Research Base; Office of Science and Technology; HMSO; pounds 10.50.