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:
- 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.
- 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.