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back to article Boffins: Stop trying to monetise us, you don't know how

British boffins have cast doubt on government plans to reorient the nation's scientific and technical research so as to benefit the economy. They say that the connection between research and economic impact is poorly understood, and suggest that the government resists the temptation to meddle until it knows what it's doing. The …

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DJV
Stop

Suggests?

Boffins "suggest that the government resists the temptation to meddle until it knows what it's doing"

Government knowing what it's doing? The words "freeze", "hell" and "over" come to mind...

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"parasitical, useless fields such as rap music, law, financial services or journalism."

Thank you Lewis, I will try to find a way of using that gem in a conversation.

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Boffin

Translation

In other words, scientists with pretty large brains reckon that they are better at fitting random buzz-words into a grant application, than politicians with average size brains are at choosing the right buzz-words in the first place?

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Headmaster

wait what?

attract more students to university? won't they have to...erm... provide more places for that?

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FAIL

*groans*

Reducing funding to STFC, truly a wondrous idea nuLab. Quite where you expect newly monetisable science to be researched is beyond me. Diamond? ISIS? With the squeeze your putting on them? pft.

Tell me again how you judge the future monetary worth of funding proposals? Ah yes, buzzwords, long live nano-obsession.

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Useless Fields

» Instead they will be likely to drift into parasitical, useless fields such as rap music, law, financial services or journalism.

Hear! Hear! Unfortunately some of the above-mentioned fields are also very lucrative, even when you fuck up royally (not looking at banking in particular). One can not blame one for wanting to be materially very comfortable - even scientists need porsches [1].

[1] I think this is a quote from Bloom County, but I could be wrong.

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Boffin

Commercialisation? Don't we do that already?

So the grinding gears of government have decided to grind into us poor researchers? Good grief.

In applying for a research grant, you're already asked to specify the timeliness of the research, its commercial relevance, and so on. Moreover, it's very common for university research groups to go into partnership with commerce. This is not surprising as scientific research, by it's very nature, is intended to have short or long-term usefulness to humanity. Part of this process is casting the net far and wide, allowing researchers to follow obscure, unusual trains of thought on the off-chance there may be dividends.

What I suspect the UK government /really/ wants to do is tighten scientific funding to a gnat's chuff. They're half-way there already: not only has the success rate of EPSRC grants fallen to 1 in 7, but now EPSRC penalises researchers after several failed grant applications. This hobbling clearly not being enough, they'll also tie scientists to the corporate mast.

There is a very real danger that scientists will be asking themselves why, exactly, they are putting up with this crap -- before heading off to sunnier, better-funded climes. Gordon Brown or David Cameron will not pull themselves out of a recession by haemorrhaging academics.

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Silver badge

Do research .... and then what?

So a research group makes a dramatic discovery (or improves a process, or develops a technique) that's all very nice and something that brits do quite well. The problem is not so much with getting the grant, as getting the payback. History is littered with british innovation that has failed completely to get any traction in the UK and therefore, although paid for by british research grants, goes overseas for development, manufacture or simply to be pirated by industries that benefit other countries much more then they benefit the originators.

Now I'm well aware of all the aphorisms about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration an' stuff. However, it seems to me that performing basic (or not-basic, depending on what the grant-appliers choose to call it) research and technical innovation is largely wasted in britain as we don't have the will, ability, regulations or industrial base to take it out of the lab. and onto the high street. Maybe if the gummint wants to make some money from it's (or is that "our's"?) investment in science, then maybe they should focus on how to get british-financed research into british products that we can export, ourselves.

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Useless Fields

You missed the most useless of all - Social Work

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Linux

knowledge economy my arse.

It's clear that the perception of cutting edge in technology research these days seems to be centred around Facebook and Iphone Apps. Thee don't even deserve the full "application" title as they aren't even that. These things have all the RandD merit of a pretty multi colour formatted spread sheet.

The real research has always been in what resides under the bonnet and makes these things work.

The money these days is in joining the dots on a coding platform and slapping an add on it. Thats what the government means when it talks about technology with an economic benift. Google adds are the future.....

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FAIL

Academic Losers

Writing as a physicist running a high-tech company I have to agree that the boffinry is right that the link between academia and economic value is poorly understood.

However, their sole intention in stating this is to maintain this happy state of affairs by preventing the discovery that their mediocre, low-grade, dull-witted, grunt academic "research" "work" is of value to no-one in industry - unlike other European countries and US and Japan, where industry-academic links are much stronger. (Let's accept their output isn't of any interest to anyone except the mutual admiration societies that populate conferences where they award each other "trophies" in annual rotation.)

After all - if industry had to bid for the supposedly economically-valuable stuff most of them publish to justify a stipend it wouldn't do much for their egos when industry bids topped a fiver, would it?

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Anonymous Coward

@Academic Losers

there are more meanings to "value" than those providing you industry types with enough revenue for a new Porsche.

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Research *shouldn't* pay its way.

If it was profitable, over the time-scale of the research itself, private industry would rush to finance it. (<5 years is the horizon on most proposals.) The whole point of state funding is that there is other research that isn't going to be profitable over such a short time-frame but that any fule can see will deliver longer term benefits. These benefits might not be purely monetary. How, exactly, do you intend to monetise a really accurate climate model?

Try winding the clock back to our state of knowledge (say) half a century ago and see how many industries simply disappear. (IT angle: Wind it back a whole century and you lose quantum physics, and with it the entire electronics industry. It's a little appreciated fact that transistors weren't "discovered" and then "explained" by quantum theory. They were predicted by the theory and then actually made in a lab about 8 years later, after substantial effort motivated only by the mathematical gobbledy-gook.)

Where our government can help, is in ensuring that as ideas move from blue sky to potentially lucrative, the exploitation is done in this country. That's a whole lot easier if the blue-sky bit was done here. Do you think *other* countries are going to be happy doing the blue-sky bit and then letting us poach the profits? Do you think the expertise will emigrate to this country to help?

The flaw in current government thinking is to place the burden of responsibility for that transfer on the scientists responsible for the research. They're scientists, not venture capitalists. Their expertise lies in science, not VC. Is that really so hard to grasp?

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Unhappy

One way to make yet another quick profit...

"government plans to reorient the nation's scientific and technical research so as to benefit the economy"

Why don't they just sell off all scientific and technical research to other countries, its what they have done with nearly all UK manufacturing.

For years NuLabour has run our country very much like those greedy narcissistic executives ran MG Rover, so why not just sell off what remaining assets the country still has, before they all retire to their rich retirement pads somewhere hot ... Burning in hell, hopefully.

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Anonymous Coward

Let's make government profitable

that is the first place to start.

Now, they have a TV Channel, they could wear sponsorship on their attire, the Houses of Parliament has access to the Thames, they could sell fish, and perhaps irrigate and grow some veg, hold a little farmer's market every Monday and Friday. When there is no debates going on in the House, perhaps a bit of theatre it would make for quite an interesting stage.

Black house, kettle eye, pot plank, stone calling to mix a few metaphors.

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Paris Hilton

Oh no!

<polite applause>

Do we really want a beaurocrat in charge of 'economic developments'?

It sounds like a kiss of death to me and another poorly writ funding application by outgoing civil servants.

Polite applause for scientists realising and vocalising that a civil servant dullwit interfering with science - technology - development - manufacturing - distributing - selling is NOT a positive development at all.

</polite applause>

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Megaphone

Hardly a Nu idea

Mad Cow Thatcher started this way back then. research suddenly became business oriented and everyone was spinning off their short-term successes in parcs --- with no "k".

Pure research, done for the sake of enriching mankind's knowledge, hit the doldrums.

But sadly, anything that was good for Thatcher beams for New Labour.

She *said* she was going to destroy socialism --- no-one suspected she'd do it by converting them!

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copying commercial investors is fail of governance

IMO it makes no sense for the public to invest into what commerical entities are willing to finance.

A sensible focus were for the public to invest into into fields where the public benefits from but where no commerical entity can or wants to invest. For example due to no direct commerical benefit, the investment will be too far into the future or, secondary projects supporting the "vision" where a society or country wants to go to.

Positive examples are for one projects with the outlook "to serve humanity" but a lack of potential for direct commerial exploitation, projects which promise maybe huge commercial potential but are so expensive no corporation or single country can bear the costs on its own or the risk of the technology being owned by a single company were unacceptable (e.g. cold fusion or basic research into understanding cancer...) or for the last one, supporting fields where a country or region feels it is strong and a favourable environment exists, but it is felt commerical investment is not enough.

(For the last point, As swiss i think switzerland is strong in material technology and micro-machinery and there exist many small enterprises in these fields which can benefit from their geographical proximity, so i think support for startups in these fields is something we'd want to invest in with technology-transfer and institutional backup-research as well as funding start-ups. I don't know the situation in the UK, but am sure the UK too has fields where it's commonly felt a niche fits the local circumstances).

Some negative examples where you'd not want to invest public money/effort into (related to above examples to make the point) were specific cancer relief chemistry (covered by pharma industry with massive sums, so "no point" there), more efficient motors (as opposed to tapping new energy "sources" like cold fusion, the investment is likely small in comparison) and for the swiss example reasearch into material favorable for, for example improving microprocessors (High-K, Intel invests lots already and other companies likely do as well) or coatings for this-and-the-other effect (low friction etc) - direct commerical benefit at moderate investment / "time for delivery of useful partial results" makes these interesting enough for commercial investors.

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Anonymous Coward

"Academic Losers"

I'm with "Anonymous Coward Posted Friday 11th September 2009 14:15 GMT". There is tremendous snobbery in the UK scientific community about ties with industry - which allows countries like Germany and Japan to take the lead.

In the end though, if you don't want to sully your hands by working for commercial entities and expect the tax payer to foot the bill, then you are going to have to tolerate some scrutiny as to whether your research is worthwhile. It is not necessarily a matter of commercial worth of some area or research but facing up to the realities of how to balance the various demands on public spending in the face of lower tax revenues and an enormous public spending deficit. It might be very exciting to have some research into spacetime that benefits space travel a hundred years from now but if it is at the cost of pensioners not getting enough geriatric care or schools not having enough books then it is not worth it.

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Been there...

If they want to know how disastrous profit driven science can be, they need only to check the New Zealand experience. We've been stuck with it for the last decade or so. Countless years of filling out funding applications fully aware that only 10-20% will be granted, funds cut off just before fruition, the best brains heading off overseas, the links between agriculture, industry and science allowed to wither, etc, etc.

The classic example of bureaucracy trying to second-guess where the future profits might lie was with a local project to mechanise the pollination of kiwifruit vines, that was working but needed refinement. Canned just before completion about the same time the varroa bee mite invaded NZ.

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Government only wants more income for itself

These proposals from government are not designed to improve the circumstances of research, but are instead designed to improve the income of the government. If the government could, it would not fund anything at all. Furthermore, the primary role of government is surely to create law. Parliament's function is as a law maker for the nation. What has happened is that, to create new employment within the Civil Service, the servants, sic!, saw the opportunity to increase both their power over the nation and create new employment for themselves by getting involved as the originators of research and development. History shows us again and again, that if we do come up with something new and useful, they are so concerned to create income for themselves, the last thing they are going to do is go on supporting the work already initiated. How many successes have been sold on? The recent TV series describing the development of our hydrogen bomb, related bomber aircraft and the early rockets are an excellent example. Again and again, they sell off rather than support. So to come out now and say they are looking for new research to become more economic minded is another way of saying that they are in desperate need for more income to pay for their wages and pensions..... and they do not care a single jot as to how they get their hands on it. The great mistake has been to allow government to become involved in the first place. Why is there no mention of our savings institutions funding such? What are the savings of the nation doing being swilled around markets with a single purpose of creating income for the financial institutions? Take another look, they create immense income for, yes, you have guessed it, government. I have recently set into motion a debate using a free PDF book; The Road Ahead from a Grass Roots Perspective. In it I suggest that the rules for a true free market economy should be:

To create a true free market, capital based, local economy, with as much competition between the many suppliers to the local economy as possible; only requires we accept four primary rules: 1. Only the job creator makes the decision to create a new job. 2. They receive adequate Equity Capital by abiding to strict, but open rules that leave them in complete control of their new business. 3. Local savings are invested, as equity capital, back into the local community to provide the required capital to create the new jobs. 4. All transactions are made to the rules of a free market. It really is as simple as that.

If you go read the book, you will see that you can have every form of research paid for by the investment of the savings of the nation and without a single penny of taxation being spent. Until we create an economy that is more financially successful OUTSIDE of government so that the government returns to its primary function of creating law, the civil servants will continue to try every possible means to increase their income at your expense.

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Joke

Scenario

1 - Hello is that the UK Research and Development Support Unit?

2 - Yes. How can I help you?

1 - Well it's about Project reference 12345. I need to get go ahead to produce a large scale sample. We have three manufacturing plants, one assembly plant, logistics team, distributors and a bundle of transport waiting for decision to go ahead. Can I speak to someone? It really is urgent.

2 - I am sorry. Your case worker is on compassionate leave and we don't really know the return date.

1 - Whaaaattttt? We must have spoke about this just a couple of weeks ago and all I had to do is phone in for the authorisation.

2 - Of course, yes. That sounds like normal working practice. But there is no other person able to take decision of your case worker.

1 - Uh. Right. Now then. Can I speak to the unit manager? Maybe the manager has authority to intervene?

2 - Yes, for sure. You can email the details in if you want to.

1 - Yes, but all of the details are with my "case worker".

2 - Ah... Sorry. we cannot access details held by another employee - data protection act and all that.

1 - Okay. Give me the email address and I'll send the stuff in. Will you be able to reach a decision by 6 pm tomorrow night?

2 - Unfortunately for your project the unit manager is on scheduled leave and will not be back for 10 days. An intervention also takes up to 10 days as we have to acquaint ourselves with the proper details. At the very earliest it is likely to be 20 days before we can reach a decision. Is that okay?

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Stop

impatience

So the government won't fund (or makes such funding difficult to get) research that doesn't help the UK economy within a time frame they see as beneficial.

Was someone surprised?

We live in a country governed by and for impatient consumerists who enjoy the short cuts that technology gives them. It has been this way for a long time. This is the cause of the popularisation of many, many things; such as indoor plumbing, electricity in homes, the printing press, cars and so forth. We don't like having to give things up for the better in the long run - especially when the long run is so far off we have trouble accurately predicting it.

Researchers cannot fight the government and corporations. If there are researchers willing to work for them then they will get their marketable goods and ideas.

Enabling research for research's sake enriches a community by making creativity the cornerstone of how the community is perceived. It makes people want to work together. But it is a lot slower at producing results. In our nation our government tells us we should strive to be "better" than Germany, or Japan and this makes me sad. We should strive to be a more coherent community, less focused on wealth generation and more focused on quality of life.

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Joke

@MinionZero

"Why don't they just sell off all scientific and technical research to other countries, its what they have done with nearly all UK manufacturing"

The British government has already done this.

It is now called Quinitiq.

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