Why investing in basic research pays – an interactive presentation from the Association of American Universities (AAU)
The story of how the Digital Library Initiative created the context from which Google evolved.
UPDATE: much, much, much more here:
On Facebook, the Employment Control Framework and root gardening | An eye on science and what makes it going
In 2003 Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, an idea now worth 65 billions dollars that has changed the way people communicate. This is probably the most successful venture in the history of capitalism, hence in the history of modern economy.
Science and Innovation Policy in the ‘Towards Recovery: Programme for a National Government 2011-2016′
The Programme is available here.
The major section dealing with science and innovation policy reads as follows (pp 9 – 10):
Innovation and Commercialisation
We will implement innovation and commercialisation policies as outlined below subject to cost benefit analysis.
• We will progressively implement the recommendations in the Trading and Investing in the Smart Economy Report
• We will support our indigenous digital game industry by reforming R&D supports available to the industry, setting aside funding from Innovation Fund Ireland for a seed capital scheme for Irish digital gaming start-ups, introduce a digital media component to Transition Year programmes and promote Ireland as digital gaming hub.
• We will develop Ireland as a ‘digital island’ and first-mover when it comes to information technology by ensuring more progress on e-Government and moving Government services online, investing in ICT in schools, and investing in information technology in the healthcare sector.
• We will make Ireland a leader in the emerging I.T. market of cloud computing by promoting greater use of cloud computing in the public sector, organising existing State supports for cloud computing into a package to promote Ireland as a progressive place for I.T. investment, establishing an expert group to address new security and
privacy issues arising from the use of cloud computing and reviewing the adequacy of current legislation and identify what steps need to be taken to ensure a supportive regulatory environment.
• We will develop a National Intellectual Property (IP) protocol to give predictability about the terms on which business can access IP created in Higher Education Institutions and the wider digital sector.
• We will promote and support investment in technology research, development and commercialisation beyond basic research supported by Science Foundation Ireland, as well as removing barriers to innovation and accelerate exploitation of new technologies.
• We will target key technology areas and sectors where innovation can be applied including but not limited to high value manufacturing, advanced materials, nanotechnology, bioscience, electronics, photonics and electrical systems and information and communication technology. We will also focus on the application of technological innovation in established sectors of the economy like energy generation and supply, transport, creative industries, high-value services and architecture and construction by identifying challenges, establishing priorities and developing strategies which specify necessary actions to transition to more innovative approach.
• We will promote Ireland’s full engagement with the ‘Innovative Union’ proposals issued by the European Commission in October 2010 as one of the seven flagship initiatives under EU2020 Strategy, with the specific aim of refocusing R&D and innovation policy on major challenges and at turning inventions into products.
• The critical gap between basic research promoted and funded by Science Foundation Ireland and third level institutions and its subsequent development into commercial opportunity for investors can only be closed by making new technologies ‘investment ready’. We will establish a network of Technology Research Centres focused on
applied technological research in specific areas, to be linked to appropriate highereducation institutions. The centres will accelerate exploitation of new technologies by providing infrastructure that bridges gap between research and technology commercialisation. We will initially establish 3 additional centres foccussing on
biotechnology, nanotechnology and high value manufacturing. Further centres from a number of other areas will be selected at a later time.
• We will support the development of an International Content Services Centre to make Ireland world leader in managing intellectual property.
• We will pioneer within the EU a model of ‘fair use’ in European Copyright Law, like in the USA, which effectively permits the use of portions of a copyrighted work so long as the normal economic exploitation of the originating work is not undermined. This will allow internet companies and other digital innovators to bring their services
Subject to a cost benefit analysis, we will amend the R&D tax credit regime to make it more attractive and accessible to smaller businesses, in the following ways:
• Companies with R&D expenditures of under €100,000 will be entitled to full tax credit on those entire expenditures as opposed to just the increment over the base year, with marginal relief for companies with expenditure just over €100,000.
• We will allow companies to offset the R&D credit against employers. PRSI as an alternative to corporation tax.
• To cut down on red tape in the applications process, companies in receipt of a Research, Technology and Innovation (RTI) grant from one of the development agencies will be automatically deemed as entitled to the R&D tax credit.
Other relevant pieces:
Investment priorities will include education, health and science and technology (p. 16)
Undertake a full review of the Hunt and OECD reports into third level funding before end of 2011. Our goal is to introduce a funding system that will provide third level institutions with reliable funding but does not impact access for students (p 17)
Maths and science teaching at second level will be reformed, including making science a compulsory Junior Cert subject by 2014. Professional development for maths and science teachers will be prioritised. (p 40)
Third Level Reform (p 43)
We will review the recommendations of Hunt report on higher education. A reform of third level will be driven by the need to improve learning outcomes of undergraduate degree students, as well as providing high quality research.
We will initiate a time-limited audit of level 8 qualifications on offer and learning outcomes for graduates of these courses.
We will introduce radical reform in third level institutions to maximise existing funding, in particular reform of academic contracts and will encourage greater specialisation by educational institutions.
We support the relocation of DIT to Grangegorman as resources permit.
We will explore the establishment of a multi campus Technical University in the South East.
We will extend the remit of Ombudsman to third level institutions.
We will merge the existing accreditation authorities; National Qualifications Authority, FETAC and HETAC to increase transparency.
Matt Yglesias writes:
A lot of our politics is about symbolism. And symbolically intellectual property represents itself in the contemporary United States as a kind of property—it’s right there in the name. But it’s better thought of as a kind of regulation. Patents and copyrights are modeled, economically, the same as you would model any state-created monopoly.I think the idea that intellectual property is property is too entrenched, at this point, for this to be an effective rhetorical strategy. Furthermore, rhetoric aside, philosophically the real breakthrough would be for people to realize that defending property rights is not tantamount to defending freedom. What strong IP protection generates is not a free market but something more like information feudalism: a market-unfriendly clusterfuck of fiefdoms and inescapably inefficient lord-vassal terms-of-service arrangements that any friend of freedom, in any ordinary sense, ought to look upon with disgust. The reason why libertarian rhetoric – defend property rights! – can underwrite feudalism, of all things, is that a certain sort of libertarianism, i.e. so-called propertarianism, really just plain is a form of feudalism. I’ve made the case at length.
More via link above. A good question is whether or not it is actually worth spending lots of time protecting IP in universities. Academics publish in peer-reviewed journals which are in turn gradually succumbing to open access (OA) trends and policies. OA is a bit of misnomer in the sense that even for the traditional academic journals, access to papers is available for a small fee (papers published in Nature are $32 each, for example); free-access might be a better term than open access. Lots of this work will also end in open access institutional repositories. Academic research is therefore already mostly open and freely available through peer-reviewed publication, and that academic IP in reality mostly comprises expertise, judgement, track record and know-how, not discrete inventions of new products (that might produce those so badly-wanted substantial revenue streams). Should universities spend so much time, money and effort on protecting IP? Maybe, but maybe not…
Posted by David Boaz
Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.
The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.
FWIW, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and a great counter to the pervasive misery-mongering rife. The tagline ‘ideas having sex’ is a great metaphor for the advancement of knowledge. Here is his TED talk – well worth watching.
There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.
Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
From The Economist.
Many of the arguments are valid. But make two plausible assumptions and you get a different answer.
Assumption 1: Innovation, including academic research, is the fundamental driver of long term health, wealth and happiness for the human race. (The “including academic research” bit is the biggest leap.)
Assumption 2: Unfortunately it’s very difficult to say beforehand who will and who will not produce great, or even good, research. (Even after five years departments have trouble predicting which of their crop will excel.)
In this world, each extra PhD raises the chances of one more brilliant, world-changing idea. While hardly comforting to the thousands who toil without job prospects, the collective benefits just might outweigh all the individual misery.
The decision might be individually rational as well, especially if students are no better at predicting their success than their advisors (they probably aren’t).
(A similar analogy comes from Lant Pritchett, who points out that you need a system that produces an enormous number of terrible dance recitals to get the handful of sublime performers. The same logic applies, he argues, to development projects and policies.)
One counterpoint: Here is where I would expect to see overconfidence bias lead to oversupply (and few of the collective benefits thereof). So maybe we need a system that gives the least promising an easier out that saves face.
A very disturbing story from The Economist regarding the past, present and especially the future of PhDs.
‘… the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.’
Clay Shirkey on Collapsing Societies, Institutions and Business Models (… and how about universities?)
Clay Shirkey in a much-commented upon post addressing collapsing business models, institutions and societies (this post has been around a while). Read the whole post – it seems very relevant to the way all sorts of instutions are actively resisting the call of the future at present. Universities in general seem resistant to this sort of institutional collapse, as they have survived for so long (but will particular universities be able to resist such institutional collapse, given the host of pressures that are building?). To re-write the financial watchdog warning: perhaps past survival of a university is no guarantee of future survival!
In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.
The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.
Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.
Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
Here’s disturbing story from the UK (reg req):
Recession-hit companies scale back university liaison offices
Universities could find it more difficult to find industry research partners as hi-tech companies look to scale back or close their academic liaison departments in the wake of the financial crisis.
And a quote:
The defence technology company QinetiQ, spun out of the government’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 2001, has closed its central academic liaison department. And within the past few months, the mobile telecoms company Vodaphone has moved its academic cooperation work into a single office in Germany. Previously, academic liaison was handled by a team scattered across different countries including Germany, the UK and Spain.
This has to be a concern if it is generally true: the idea that industry-academic partnerships are a good thing is reasonable on the face of it, but if industry decides it’s not interested, then what…?
A previous post here gives a very different perspective on how such interactions might actually evolve.
Science is Vital (a new UK organisation opposed to cuts in the science budget there) offer a very interesting economic rationale for investing in research on their site [post reproduced in full]. Many of these points are just as important here in Ireland. There are lots of links below to actual evidence on the importance of investment in R&D.
Point 1. Investment in science and engineering skills and research yields broad and historically proven economic returns. Such investment, if made now, could drive the growth needed to secure a strong economic recovery:
- By showing a strong and sustained commitment to science and engineering, the UK can attract and retain excellent and internationally mobile scientists and engineers and the industries that seek to employ them, which will give immediate gains through tax revenues and employment.
- The UK’s economic climate, funding, and the reputations of its universities, all help to attract more and more overseas students – 250,000 in 2008/09, who contributed about £5bn to the UK economy. (BIS SET statistics)
- 180,000 people gain from working in R&D. (BIS SET statistics)
- Finland and Korea responded to their economic crises in the 1990s by investing heavily in R&D while severely constraining public spending; these investments helped their strong regrowth in knowledge-based economies. The UK has not yet seized the opportunity, still available, to invest in science and engineering to accelerate the recovery
- Multifactor productivity (MFP) reflects the extent to which an economy can derive GDP growth from a certain level of labour and capital. A 2004 OECD analysis estimated that a 1% increase in business R&D increases MFP by 0.13% and a 1% increase in public R&D increases MFP by 0.17%.
- A 2008 medical research report estimated that every £1 spent on public or charitably funded research gave a return of 30p a year in perpetuity from direct or indirect GDP gains, on top of the direct gains of the research.
- Corporate investment in R&D brings a return of around 50% to the public. This compares to a private return of around 20% captured by investors themselves.
Point 2. The Government is keen to boost confidence in the UK by making decisive cuts. But cuts in the science and engineering sectors would have the opposite effect, damaging investor confidence, reducing levels of investment and impacting the quality of higher education:
- Science in the UK already operates as a ‘Big Society’, with public investment and private enterprise strongly interacting. Cuts to academia or innovation support could have unforseen and damaging consequences due to the links between them.
- Investment in science cannot simply be turned off and then turned back on again a few years later. As former Science Minister Lord Waldegrave said, “If we cut science now, just as the benefits of nearly twenty years of consistent policy are really beginning to bear fruit, we will seriously damage our economic prospects.”
- The total budget for R&D is an important signal to investors and researchers. If the UK is not perceived to support R&D then they move to more favourable countries, as UK business leaders have previously warned. The UK currently receives a very high proportion of its R&D funds from foreign owned firms (17%), which may be even more responsive to market conditions than UK-based companies.
- If research projects are cut short, this wastes money that has already been spent and risks mothballing large-scale projects such as the Diamond Light Source or Isis.
- Reducing investment in R&D would reduce the potential for economic growth. There will be fewer breakthroughs, and less development of them into beneficial products. The general public will notice falling productivity, given the level of media interest in and coverage of scientific and medical discoveries, as well as new (including green) technologies.
- The UK’s reputation in science and engineering has already been damaged (e.g. physics funding crisis, and cuts already announced). We can recover with prompt action, but if not done soon, it will be hard to regain our previously enviable reputation.
- Reduced funding for higher education teaching and research has already resulted in job losses. As the teaching of high-cost science and engineering courses is already under-resourced, and some universities have accepted unfunded places, further financial pressure is likely to lead to departmental closures.
- Universities increasingly bolster their finances by recruiting overseas students, who bring with them high levels of fees. If the UK becomes less desirable, then this income will fall.
- If the capacity and quality of the higher education system is reduced, a generation of less-skilled graduates is the result. Without enough people trained in science, technology, engineering and maths, it will be difficult to retain industrial investment in the UK.
- If university funding is lowered, universities will scale back on renewing and upgrading their teaching and research facilities, reducing the value of the skills of new graduates.
Point 3. UK science and engineering is already extremely efficient:
Nearly 30% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is produced by sectors intensive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet the UK government spends a smaller proportion of its GDP on research than any other nation in the G7, bar Italy. We rank 14th in the OECD under the same metric – just behind Belgium and Canada, and on par with the EU27 average. Despite this, the UK:
- Leads the world in a huge range of scientific disciplines.
- Produces 12% of global citations with around 1% of the population.
- Is home to 29 of the world’s top 200 universities, including three of the top ten (THE rankings).
This is possible through UK science being very efficient:
- The UK is 3rd in the world in terms of citations per researcher
- The UK is ranked first in the G8 for scientific papers produced as a proportion of GDP
- We overwhelmingly focus on world-class research. About 90% of research funds (£980m out of £1095m) from HEFCE go to 3* or 4* research (defined as ‘internationally excellent’ and ‘world-leading’, respectively).
- Research council grants are extremely competitive. For instance, success rates of 19% at the MRC (down from 21% in 2008-9) and 22% at the BBSRC mean that thousands of proposals are rejected. In 2003, the overall grant success rate across research councils was around 40% – it has now fallen to around 20% (in 2008).
While efficiency savings in R&D still need to be made, these savings must be reinvested in science and engineering.
Point 4. The Government needs to develop a long-term and stable policy framework to make the UK a country where people and companies want to do science and engineering, enabling researchers to innovate, and encouraging private investment:
- Analysis of over 100 UK case studies by the Russell Group found that it took an average of 9 years from an initial discovery to produce a license or other measurable impact (e.g., significant commercial investment in a spin-out company). Given that the research cycle can have a decades-long timeframe, the public environment in which research plans are made needs to be of the same order.
- Private investments, research programmes and careers are reliant on a long-term, coherent, and credible policy framework. Instability will reduce the ability of these individuals to do their most high-impact and valuable work.
- A lack of long-term investment framework will compound
- In spring 2010, the most important organisations in UK science urged the government to develop long-term plans. The Royal Society’s Scientific Century report urged the government to outline spending plans over a 15-year period to provide “a clear, long-term framework within which to plan, build, and compete globally”.
- The House of Lords Science & Technology Committee recommended that the government adopt and articulate a long-term vision for UK Research, and the Council for Science and Technology talked of a vision for the future in which the UK research base is successful and globally competitive 20 years out. They urged that, “the Government needs to develop consistent, focused long-term industrial strategies”.
Point 5. Investment in science must be increased, or at the very least maintained, it order for the UK to remain internationally competitive
- The UK invested 1.8% of its GDP in R&D in 2007. This is short of the UK’s own target of 2.5%, and further behind the EU target of 3%.8. The new Government needs to commit to the challenging goal of at least 2.5% of GDP to be spent on R&D from all sources by 2014.
- The UK has an excellent track record, with four of the world’s top 30 research universities. But this excellence is threatened by rapidly increasing investment overseas, particularly in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, that could grow into research giants. Indeed, the UK’s share of scientific publications fell over the last decade, while China’s quadrupled.
- Other world leaders have set out the case for investing in science and engineering.
The advantages that the UK built upon – including an early scientific and industrial base, the English language, and openness to international investors and workers – will not sustain our excellence without a strong new commitment to the future.