The Irish Times has today printed a laudatory, uncritical, advertorial on Knowledge Transfer Ireland. It is to me a thousand word puff piece, which contains little hard facts, no analysis, and little news. There is one piece of news, to which I will come.
The piece reads, and may be, as an extraction and repackaging, a collation of press packages. It lauds the new director, whom I am sure is great woman, as a secret ingredient; it praises the approach to getting business and academia talking; it praises the promise of a new way. You know the type of article.
KTI is appallingly error ridden. It is partial, poorly constructed and unfit for purpose. A casual usage would reveal that. I have two blogposts deconstructing it here and here. Any company relying on KTI to find appropriate partners would need its head examined. It doesn’t work.
There is one piece of news. The proposal to kickstart commercialisation now seems to be to give IP away for free. This is a rather radical proposal, and something that if it does go ahead should get the public accounts committee involved as a possible waste of state funds. Researchers in the higher education space get funded in four ways ; direct state grants to the institution, fee income (whether paid by the state or other) , research income (again from state, private, commercial and other sources) and miscellaneous sources such as benefactions, campus events and tourism etc. The bottom line is that there is and will remain a large state, that is taxpayer, involvement in all research. Even researchers in the most privately funded research lab have indirect state funding via their usage of college facilities.
Researchers create or surface knowledge. This may be valuable. It is always in part taxpayer supported. The plan now is to give away this public funded good to a private organization, with a clause that if it works they might eventually pay. This is similar to the idea of advance market commitments, but differs crucially in that it gives power to the firm. It is in effect yet another subsidizing of private wealth creation by public money. Presumably the argument is that these companies will create jobs, and thats a net benefit (although we see no cost benefit analysis having been undertaken).
Several issues arise here. First, most IP doesn’t pay in the short term. Many of the most valuable and socially impactful inventions and innovations take decades to percolate to use. There are massive lags in the R&D – innovation process. Companies may not be able to create in a meaningful timeframe any return on the granted IP, so the state would be at an absolute loss. Second, as we know in Ireland, companies are rather adept at using the provisions of the accounting code to show that they are flat broke, barely hanging on, not a bean etc, while delivering fat returns to the shareholders. Trust us they say.. Third, the issue of patents, or licensing of IP, is extremely complex. A recent Harvard study provides a good overview of the area. A conclusion they draw is that many patenting and IP protection activities are in fact rent-seeking, and that non patent approaches to fostering knowledge may in fact be superior. Patents and other forms of IP protection may in fact be stifling of innovation rather than what they are supposed to be doing, providing a barrier behind which it can take place. They suggest, with evidence prizes, with the majority of rewards being non-monetary. This would be cheap, would allow the IP to be made public, and would enhance research. Yes, there is a danger that the jobs or wealth created would not be in Ireland, but companies wilshing to use such knowledge would in all likelihood work as closely with the discoverers and researchers as possible, and that means locally.
KTI is a classic Irish situation. Its intentions are good, if fuzzy, and its execution execrable. We need to determine first what it is we want from industry academia collaboration, then we need to map in detail what is going on. That is much much more than counting patents.. Finally, we need to determine how best to ensure that gaps in these desiderata are filled. A poorly executed poorly populated database is nowhere required.