Sir John Bourn, the Head of the NAO, reported to Parliament today that there has been progress in capturing for the nation more of the economic and social benefits of scientific research funded by the taxpayer. Commercialisation can range from making research outputs available to all, free of charge, to forming companies to develop innovative products in partnership with the private sector. Following agreement with the Treasury in 1999, scientific establishments have kept money made from their research and used it to sustain further commercialisation and further research.
Sir John found that a wide variety of commercialisation activities are taking place across the diverse range of research establishments, including a number of projects that offer the prospect of real health improvements in areas as diverse as asthma, cancer care and women’s health as well as innovations in the plant, animal and earth sciences.
The public sector also stands to benefit financially. The report shows that some £17 million of annual income is being generated from existing projects across the establishments examined. Commercialisation projects are innovative and their success cannot be guaranteed but Sir John suggests that a thorough approach to risk management will increase the chances of success and help to minimise the impact of failure.
Sir John considers that effective commercialisation is not possible without an enabling culture, and that committed leadership has been evident in areas where the most progress has been made. The report suggests that effective accountability and appropriate rewards for the contributions of scientists and other specialists all help to build an enabling culture. He also notes that research establishments should continue to manage actively any conflicts of interest that emerge as a result of commercial work.
Successful projects need the right skills and sufficient resources. Sir John welcomes the employment in some research establishments of skilled commercial people to manage intellectual property and negotiate with private sector partners. Although some additional finance has been allocated, many research establishments’ commercialisation activity is limited in part by the scarcity of resources.
To help increase the number and quality of commercialisation projects, the report makes a number of recommendations, including reviews of research establishments’ commercial performance against a well thought through strategy; increased recognition of commercial activity in individuals’ appraisals; and reviews of existing intellectual property and commercial budgets.