Posts Tagged ‘investment’

Industry-academic interactions

October 8, 2010 1 comment

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: The economic return argument in favour of investment in research

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Longer-term dangers:

  • 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.
  • Funding the university sector – The Irish Times – Thu, Jun 03, 2010

    Funding the university sector – The Irish Times – Thu, Jun 03, 2010.

    Hard to improve on this Irish Times Editorial – it says it all. The sector is in crisis, and meanwhile is expected to be engine of the smart economy and to drive innovation and smart job creation. Guess what? It’s not going to happen with the current mind-boggling disinvestment in the sector. Maintaining standards as they are is going to be a challenge, let alone raising our game to the next level. And the effects of these cutbacks will be seen in the coming years as lower and slower economic growth.

    How will the universities will deliver the Innovation Agenda, when staff numbers and resourcing are dramatically and arbitrarily cut? Want to know why there is no Irish Google? It’s because there is no Irish Stanford! Universities which function as beacons to attract the brightest and the best from all over the world are required here if we wish to transform the Irish economy for ever. We are fooling ourselves if we think the current approach of investing less to achieve more is going to succeed.

    Money quotes:

    THE EXTENT of the financial and operational crisis facing the university sector has been outlined in a stark letter sent to the seven presidents by Higher Education Authority (HEA) chief executive Tom Boland. He tells the colleges to brace themselves for an unprecedented range of cuts over the next year as the Government seeks to achieve €3 billion in overall exchequer savings.  Colleges are advised to take “whatever action is needed’’ in advance of reductions in core funding.

    Cutbacks in staff numbers and in the range of programmes on offer appear inevitable. The colleges have been told also they can expect no increase in student charges for the next academic year.


    For its part, the Government appears to be in denial about the true extent of the crisis. It has identified the universities as a key player in economic revival. There is giddy talk about initiatives which will see thousands of foreign students clamouring for places in our universities; all this when many lecture halls are overcrowded and laboratory facilities are often meagre.

    See also this post on science funding and the lack of an Irish Nokia.

    A paper entitled: ‘As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?’ by Benjamin F. Jones

    Via, an interesting article on science policy from the perspective of an economist:

    As Science Evolves, How Can Science Policy?

    This post was written by Philip Lane

    Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University has written an interesting article on how the changes in the nature of scientific research pose challenges for science policy.  You can read it here.


    Getting science policy right is a core objective of government that bears on scientific advance, economic growth, health, and longevity. Yet the process of science is changing. As science advances and knowledge accumulates, ensuing generations of innovators spend longer in training and become more narrowly expert, shifting key innovations (i) later in the life cycle and (ii) from solo researchers toward teams. This paper summarizes the evidence that science has evolved – and continues to evolve – on both dimensions. The paper then considers science policy. The ongoing shift away from younger scholars and toward teamwork raises serious policy challenges. Central issues involve (a) maintaining incentives for entry into scientific careers as the training phase extends, (b) ensuring effective evaluation of ideas (including decisions on patent rights and research grants) as evaluator expertise narrows, and (c) providing appropriate effort incentives as scientists increasingly work in teams. Institutions such as government grant agencies, the patent office, the science education system, and the Nobel Prize come under a unified focus in this paper. In all cases, the question is how these institutions can change. As science evolves, science policy may become increasingly misaligned with science itself – unless science policy evolves in tandem.

    Artificial life? ‘First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell’

    Nature’s take on what will be the most* important story of the century**: First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell***.

    [*Update: I guess I should say ‘probably one of the most important scientific stories of the century’. I am sure other things might happen, such as an asteriod-mediated extinction-level event, which will probably be more important.]

    [**Update # 2: Others are less convinced: ‘IRISH SCIENTISTS have given a cold response to research released by geneticist Craig Venter, describing it as anything from a minor advance to a complete scientific folly.’]

    [***Update #3: A nice Financial Times story (reg req): “Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist,” says Arthur Caplan, bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “This makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.”]

    [Update #4: story in The Scientist: Read more: 1st cell with synthetic genome: After a 15-year marathon, researchers have created the first cell controlled by a synthetic genome, reported online today at Science. The advance, a landmark in synthetic biology, could someday be used to engineer microbes for environmental or medical applications. “This is a very impressive piece,” said Jim Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University, who was not involved in the study. The research is a “methodological tour de force,” said Collins.]

    From Nature:

    A synthesized genome has been assembled, modified and implanted into a DNA-free bacterial shell to make a self-replicating Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium1. Here, Nature presents short extracts from eight comment pieces on what this achievement means for biotechnology, evolutionary biology, regulation and philosophy. The full-length comments are available to read here.

    Some newspaper coverage:

    The Irish Times (‘SCIENTISTS IN California have created a form of artificial life. They built a species of bacteria from scratch, opening the way for the development of made-to-order designer bugs able to produce fuel or valuable medicines.);

    The New York Times (‘The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.’ previous NYT coverage).

    The Economist (‘Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor (see article). Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.’)

    And the press release from the Craig Venter Institute (note the quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynman):

    First Self-Replicating, Synthetic Bacterial Cell Constructed by J. Craig Venter Institute Researchers

    ROCKVILLE, MD and San Diego, CA (May 20, 2010)— Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

    This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

    “For nearly 15 years Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison and the rest of our team have been working toward this publication today–the successful completion of our work to construct a bacterial cell that is fully controlled by a synthetic genome,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president, JCVI and senior author on the paper. “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”

    According to Dr. Smith, “With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.”

    To complete this final stage in the nearly 15 year process to construct and boot up a synthetic cell, JCVI scientists began with the accurate, digitized genome of the bacterium, M. mycoides. The team designed 1,078 specific cassettes of DNA that were 1,080 base pairs long. These cassettes were designed so that the ends of each DNA cassette overlapped each of its neighbors by 80bp.  The cassettes were made according to JCVI’s specifications by the DNA synthesis company, Blue Heron Biotechnology.

    The JCVI team employed a three stage process using their previously described yeast assembly system to build the genome using the 1,078 cassettes. The first stage involved taking 10 cassettes of DNA at a time to build 110, 10,000 bp segments. In the second stage, these 10,000 bp segments are taken 10 at a time to produce eleven, 100,000 bp segments. In the final step, all 11, 100 kb segments were assembled into the complete synthetic genome in yeast cells and grown as a yeast artificial chromosome.

    The complete synthetic M. mycoides genome was isolated from the yeast cell and transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cells that have had the genes for its restriction enzyme removed. The synthetic genome DNA was transcribed into messenger RNA, which in turn was translated into new proteins. The M. capricolum genome was either destroyed by M. mycoides restriction enzymes or was lost during cell replication. After two days viable M. mycoides cells, which contained only synthetic DNA, were clearly visible on petri dishes containing bacterial growth medium.

    The initial synthesis of the synthetic genome did not result in any viable cells so the JCVI team developed an error correction method to test that each cassette they constructed was biologically functional. They did this by using a combination of 100 kb natural and synthetic segments of DNA to produce semi-synthetic genomes. This approach allowed for the testing of each synthetic segment in combination with 10 natural segments for their capacity to be transplanted and form new cells. Ten out of 11 synthetic fragments resulted in viable cells; therefore the team narrowed the issue down to a single 100 kb cassette. DNA sequencing revealed that a single base pair deletion in an essential gene was responsible for the unsuccessful transplants. Once this one base pair error was corrected, the first viable synthetic cell was produced.

    Dr. Gibson stated, “To produce a synthetic cell, our group had to learn how to sequence, synthesize, and transplant genomes. Many hurdles had to be overcome, but we are now able to combine all of these steps to produce synthetic cells in the laboratory.” He added, “We can now begin working on our ultimate objective of synthesizing a minimal cell containing only the genes necessary to sustain life in its simplest form. This will help us better understand how cells work.”

    This publication represents the construction of the largest synthetic molecule of a defined structure; the genome is almost double the size of the previous Mycoplasma genitalium synthesis. With this successful proof of principle, the group will now work on creating a minimal genome, which has been a goal since 1995. They will do this by whittling away at the synthetic genome and repeating transplantation experiments until no more genes can be disrupted and the genome is as small as possible. This minimal cell will be a platform for analyzing the function of every essential gene in a cell.

    According to Dr. Hutchison, “To me the most remarkable thing about our synthetic cell is that its genome was designed in the computer and brought to life through chemical synthesis, without using any pieces of natural DNA. This involved developing many new and useful methods along the way. We have assembled an amazing group of scientists that have made this possible.”

    As in the team’s 2008 publication in which they described the successful synthesis of the M. genitalium genome, they designed and inserted into the genome what they called watermarks. These are specifically designed segments of DNA that use the “alphabet” of genes and proteins that enable the researcher to spell out words and phrases. The watermarks are an essential means to prove that the genome is synthetic and not native, and to identify the laboratory of origin. Encoded in the watermarks is a new DNA code for writing words, sentences and numbers. In addition to the new code there is a web address to send emails to if you can successfully decode the new code, the names of 46 authors and other key contributors and three quotations: “TO LIVE, TO ERR, TO FALL, TO TRIUMPH, TO RECREATE LIFE OUT OF LIFE.” – JAMES JOYCE; “SEE THINGS NOT AS THEY ARE, BUT AS THEY MIGHT BE.”-A quote from the book, “American Prometheus”; “WHAT I CANNOT BUILD, I CANNOT UNDERSTAND.” – RICHARD FEYNMAN.

    Read more…

    Some thoughts on the future of research and innovation in the Irish Economy from Will Hutton

    From a post at Irish Economy, Will Hutton on the future of research and innovation in the Irish economy:

    Will Hutton focused on innovation. He also commented on the economic problems in the UK and Ireland (he made a few comments that might provoke some debate – unfortunately he had to leave the discussion early). In general he argued that since innovation depends on the cumulative stock of scientific and technological knowledge most innovation will continue to take place in the EU, US and Japan but that it was important to put the appropriate structures in place.

    His slides are available here. Note the title of his talk: ‘Shaping the recovery through innovation’. Slides 9-14 on the knowledge economy are particularly interesting, as are the slides on the research and innovation ecosystem.

    His focus for research includes the following:

    • Nanotechnologies
    • Energy from fusion
    • Advanced materials
    • Carbon sequestration
    • Manage the nitrogen cycle
    • Water
    • Health informatics
    • Durable customised infrastructure
    • Customised medicine
    • The brain
    • Cyberspace security
    • Enhance virtual reality
    • Personalised learning

    His concluding bullet points:

    The Irish Opportunity
    • Productive entrepreneurship
    • Focus on knowledge economy sectors
    • All Ireland Intermediate institutions to
    build an innovation eco-system
    • A reframed macro-deal
    • A new bargain on work – supporting
    workers as risk-taking authors of their
    own lives
    • Think small state strategies

    Fascinating that this economist, just like OECD economists, treats research as an investment, rather than consumption, good. Would that this lesson were listened to and acted upon here!

    What are the roadblocks to successful startups? And how do you overcome them? Two recent articles from the Financial Times and Nature)

    From the FT’s Unvercover Economist, Tim Harford::

    Oswald and Blanchflower originally intended to study the psychological make-up of entrepreneurs. That work went nowhere, because it seems that there is nothing distinctive about the psychological make-up of entrepreneurs.

    What matters instead is capital. In surveys, would-be entrepreneurs identify lack of finance as the key obstacle. And in a clever piece of analysis, Oswald and Blanchflower compared people who had recently received a substantial bequest with those who had not. They found that such bequests – essentially twists of fate – were good predictors of whether people became entrepreneurs. They were especially influential on the decisions of people to become entrepreneurs early in life, presumably because older people have other ways to acquire funding.

    And from Nature: Beyond venture capital:  Bioentrepreneur.

    Beyond venture capital: John Hollway

    You don’t always have to go to venture capitalists to raise funds. Proper planning and research can help you bring in millions through other avenues.

    One of the fundamental challenges in running a biotech business is the temporal alignment of two initiatives—scientific advancement and fundraising—that have no natural affinity for one another. Sometimes companies are lucky enough to raise money on the back of a scientific accomplishment, which is when it’s easiest, but raising money is a constant hurdle, especially for young biotechs; there is no guarantee that the next scientific accomplishment will occur within your new financing window (or at all).