Research commercialization: not just for profit

Aug 20 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

I read an opinion piece today in The Scientist by a postdoc at Manchester University in the UK, called "Should Science Be For Sale?" The author's opinion seems to be that research commercialization efforts are devaluing science and its pure pursuit, and that increased focus on applied research is harming support for fundamental science. This seems to be a common viewpoint among basic scientists, and I don't think they are correct. There are two reasons why commercializing and applying research out of academic institutions is important:

  1. It increases the economic value of the research enterprise, and yet operates with a different bottom line than in fully for-profit organizations. This means that if properly managed, profits can be turned back around and invested in fundamental research efforts that are otherwise unfundable. Yes, "properly managed" is the operative phrase; but in academic institutions, we as the academic community are a part of the system that governs how the institution is managed. As much as we might grumble and get disgruntled, we have vastly more influence over the structure of our organization than most companies.
  2. It gets the research outcomes from universities to be ACTUALLY USED in the real world--without commercialization, there is no way to distribute the findings into the wider community. New drugs, new devices, new products that come from academic research have to be optimized, they have to be put through the regulatory grinder process, they have to be manufactured and distributed. As distasteful as it might be to a purist, they do have to be marketed in order for enough people to hear about them to create demand.

I'll share the disclaimer that I am working on commercializing the research from my lab. We make things that could potentially be used as diagnostics to report the effectiveness of cancer drugs. We just do not have the resources, nor does our university, to bankroll the regulatory path that will be needed to see these things make it into widespread use. We need to turn this into a commodity that someone who does have those resources available would want to pursue. I don't really care about the profit part--in fact, I'm a pretty big hippie and I think I already make more money than I need. If I ever do end up making a lot of money from this (which is doubtful), I don't know what I'll do with it--maybe I'll invest it back into some fundamental research that isn't so commodifiable. But if we don't get aggressive and push to commercialize this, it will stay buried in the journals and people will keep dying from cancer relapse because their drugs weren't working and they developed resistance, even though there is a way to find that out right at the beginning of starting their treatment.

I don't see some kind of science-killing profit Armageddon coming to our academic system. Yes, our federal funding situation sucks, it sucks big time right now. The research structure (and thus tenure process) of universities in the US has been relying on that funding for so long that it is essentially built around it. The way things are changing, it isn't likely to go back to previous levels any time soon--so that means we all need to adapt. Sometimes economic adaptation means setting up a lemonade stand, sometimes it involves setting out a hat. It'd be great if we could just set out the hat and the public would fill it--but like that would happen (you can see examples in the "crowdfunded science" efforts that usually don't make enough to actually support the costs of a research enterprise). We need to give them something for their money, and that means giving them some things (yes, commodities) that they can use. But this is just, like, my opinion, man, so take it as you will.





7 responses so far

  • Hermitage says:

    Imo, that article conflates entirely too many different phenomena to push a convenient narrative of 'omgerd science is losing teh authenticity.' Also, from a pragmatic point of view, fundamental science is not exactly a crowd favorite in the US or UK, stating that funding should be cut from areas of research that provide quantifiable dividends for the public makes her sound woefully out of touch.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well said.

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  • GM says:

    There is a fundamental flaw in your thinking and it is that you accept the basic premises that making money is a good thing, that the economic value of science actually matters and that the way science is funded within the set up of our current socio-economic system is the only way thing can or should be.

    All of those are a false. And that's a basic result of scientific research in physics, biology and ecology in the last century and a half.

    Economics in its mainstream form as taught currently is a pseudoscience on the same level and playing the same role as Marx's ide0logy did in the former USSR, i.e. it is there to support the prevailing socioeconomic doctrine but is not grounded in reality at all.

    Because it tends to completely ignore the fundamental fact that we live in a physical world rather the world of its abstract toy model and as a result absurd beliefs such as the proposition that economic growth will continue forever become holy truths not to be ever questioned. Infinite economic growth is a physical impossibility. Laws of conservation of matter and energy, laws of thermodynamics, ecological constraints, things of that sort, that we have learned from science, tell you that.

    Yet instead of listening to what science tells us and reorganizing our society into a steady-state one, we insist that science has to serve the deity of infinite economic growth? Why is it that so few people can see how insane this is?

    • Arlenna says:

      I'm not totally sure what you were talking about... but it seemed like something that indicated you didn't read the post. I'm not talking about infinite economic growth, lol. I'm talking about the barter system.

    • Nat says:

      I've been away from Bloglandia so long that I forgot the pure joy in these sorts of comments

  • Damon says:

    I see no intrinsic problem with commercialization of science. However, there is at least one potential problems with prioritizing research that is commercializable: there may be (indeed there almost certainly are) as-yet undiscovered aspects of biology that *would be* commercializable if we knew they existed. However, it becomes very difficult for potential grantees to realistically state how they will commercialize something when they don't know how it works or if it even exists. Thus, requiring plans for commercialization discourages basic research that might otherwise lead (and historically has led) to important applications.

    A second problem is that it undermines the scientific endeavor by encouraging even more secrecy. Science seems to operate most efficiently when data and materials are shared freely. It's probably unrealistic to expect that level of transparency in academic science under any circumstances (an academic scientist's desire for primacy is almost hard wired). However, there's no excuse to make the situation worse. For example, I know of secret strains that are significantly better for the expression of some proteins. Because these strains were developed in collaboration with industry, they were never published and never made freely available so we'll never know what makes them better at expressing certain kinds of proteins. Academic collaboration with industry with the purpose of commercializing research requires this level of confidentiality, which benefits only the company (and perhaps to a smaller extent, the university)? The beauty of government-funded research is that it is makes the results of the research more freely available so a broader group of people can build on it.

    That's not to say that commercialization in many instances shouldn't be encouraged. However, you can't blame basic researchers for seeing these larger patterns and worrying about them. It would probably be best if we were a bit more cautious about requiring (or very strongly encouraging) commercialization.

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