Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Short Review of "Universities as the Main Drivers..."

Short Review of, "Governments and Universities as the Main Drivers of Enhanced Australian University Research Commercialisation Capability" (Harman and Harman, 2004)

This article reviews the current methods and practices of research commercialisation in the world generally and Australia specifically. The authors note there are many programs and departments involved with varying degrees of coherence and support systems. First the process of commercialisation is defined as transforming new discoveries and inventions into saleable products or services under a market orientation. That transfer of knowledge depends upon ability to know or do something, technical-specific skills or information and movement of technologies or skills and abilities from one unit of organisational management to another.

Specifically I am most interested in the facet of consulting and contracted industry research drivers as this is the most applicable to my current position and network of available options. However these drivers are diverse and relate most closely to the business-government-university partnerships described by Meyer as "triple helix" of knowledge transfer. For example, Harman and Harman describe instances of top down transfer dampeners found in Swedish university management systems which are described as discouraging commercialisation projects at the academic level as contrasted to American concepts of bottom-up management which easily describes market-based successes or failures.

For example, one might observe a top down approach at various facets of Swedish business and industry as well as social and community organisation which might to an outside observor appear to stifle developments. However if observation of historical record is made, Sweden's top-down approach may support the tightly-knit and concensus-based social organisation of that nation which is a unique approach perhaps to various Nordic cultures. Selective and government mandated specific sectors receive targeted support resulting in selective and national profile successes.

At the same time, concensus may be more difficult to achieve as in the US and may provide more competitive based incentives for a bottom-up approach to succeed, one of the most obvious being a larger proportional population which then provides more segmentary choices and diversity and more diverse marketability opportunities as one might compare the US continental share of stars in the night sky as even geographically bigger than that of comparably tiny Sweden. One achieves what one can in a small and limited market. If one were to assume that for good commercial research concepts there was always sufficient research resource funding them one would expect sources would be more numerous and diverse in larger nations.

The authors note the importance of scientific entrepreneurship, however as may or may not be known, despite organisational impediments, entrepreneurs often provide tangible examples of intangible skills being acquired or developed far from classrooms, formal learning or even experience. It makes the subject challenging to teach or qualify. Instead, they express the multiple levels and kinds of seeds-bearing programs such as early funding options, institutional environments, research links between university and industry, and the possible overlaps between funded resources and redeemable marketable research. The pharmaceutical and medical industries are cited as significant seed-funds providers obviously in return for IP controls and limitations.

The US model of common law is cited as an example of current global practices whereby it is expected that an employer may be entitled to IP ownership of any research conducted by a full-time employee either in academic or business contexts. That this common law concept is carried to various developed nations in terms of shared property ownership appears fairly clear however as most common law terms, variability would exist in interpretation with or without explicitly expressed contractual terms or expressions either limiting or expanding IP controls by employers. In any case variability in expressed IP contracts would provide a case by case set of competitiveness factors themselves. The more researchers might learn about the gaps and limitiations in boiler-plated agreements, the more independent and stakeholder-designed the IP contractual agreements might be in future. Under such conditions a researcher might best pursue concepts of negotiation as a study in itself to best protect personal best interests which yield win-win scenarios and contingency planning in terms of funding research and/or retaining some equitable or acceptable control over shared profits and results.

The authors note that clearly 58% of Australian university incomes are derived simply from local and/or international student tuitions and that research incomes remain low by comparison. As this study was in 2004 it would be interesting to highlight those institutions which derive higher percentages than the average from
research income at the present time to benchmark their best practices for local adjustments in process management at other institutions. For example, alternate sources of income in the US, Canada and Europe, such as returns on endowment funds and gifts must be extremely challenged this year where global investments and stock trading volumes are being seen at nearly 50% below the previous year. At the same time, record drops in international student enrollments must also be occurring which might provide catch 22 operational funding challenges.

Description of operational challenges include: patent and copyright processing, adequate staff allocations, the low comparative revenue generation at 3-5% of university income from research and the modularity or flexibility versus rigidity in the organisational administration of grants and contracts process. The authors exemplify University of Sydney's comprehensive multi- and cross-departmental research and liaison offices whereby other institutions have begun to modularize similar services as even component-based manunfacturing has done the same at production levels in many global factories.

Harman and Harman conclude that while many Australian universities display world-class research drivers, systems and results, they do not always singularly follow top-down or bottom-up approaches to knowledge transfer and research commercialisation. Government programs usefulness across many state and federal levels initiatives are found to provide mixed returns and most institutions implement profit sharing agreements among staff and academics responsible for the research. This would then be a major competitiveness factor for without the proper framework, incentives and rewards growing a research percentage income at many universities would appear challenging.

No comments: