Innovation – for profit or humanity?

Roland has got there first and given a great description of the latest project supported by NESTA Connect – Science for Humanity – so I wont do it again! But I think this project brings together several issues that are on the research community’s mind at the moment as well as ours!

In last thursday Independent Philip Moriarty, a physics professor at Nottingham argued that research had become too commercialised and that the government now was effectively asking researchers to “act like the research and development wing of a corporation.” He argued that academic research should be done in the public interest, not driven by the aims of a company.

Following on from this Will Hutton wrote a piece in last Sundays Observer looking at the tightrope that universities are being asked to walk between, on the one hand, being centres of knowledge and learning for their own sake and on the other, creating economic benefits for their region and country.

Hutton sites that those in the mould of Moriarty feel there is “an academic vocation that does not readily sit with commercial values”. And this is where I think Science for Humanity may have a part to play.

Whilst the argument about universities and the economic impact agenda will keep going, is there another avenue that we might want researchers to go down? Could they be using their knowledge and learning to innovate for the good of humanity?

We are hoping this is so – Science for Humanity is looking to harness the innovative capacity of researchers who don’t want to live in ivory towers but might not be motivated by profit.


  1. Rachel,
    Thanks for highlighting the pieces in The Independent and The Observer. The issue of commercialisation of publicly-funded research has become even more pressing following an Open Meeting held by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in London on Monday (March 10). During that meeting, I’ve been informed that the Chief Executive (David Delpy) and Chairman (John Armitt) of EPSRC questioned the value of fundamental research, arguing that if the science is not of direct interest to “users” – and let’s be clear that “users” is a euphimism for industry/business – then it should not be funded.
    You ask:
    “Whilst the argument about universities and the economic impact agenda will keep going, is there another avenue that we might want researchers to go down? Could they be using their knowledge and learning to innovate for the good of humanity?”
    Let’s focus on just what’s meant by the “good of humanity”. I am a firm believer in the value of *application-less* science. Just as great literature, music, and art in general enriches society, so too does great science. For example, should we strive to understand our place in the Universe?, to search for life on other planets (or for dark energy/dark matter)?, to probe the fundamental structure of matter?, to determine just how our species evolved?, to understand the colours of the rainbow?, or why the sun shines? etc… EPSRC’s answer is apparently no, unless we can improve the wealth creating potential of UK plc.
    Addressing basic scientific questions is a core function of any civilised society. What’s remarkable, however, is that basic science also has a hugely impressive track record in producing truly innovative ideas and world-changing technology. The UK government and the Research Councils wilfully refuse to accept this, and assume that only by forcing academic scientists to commercialise their (publicly-funded) research does the work have any value to society. As I’ve previously argued, this is an entirely flawed argument not only from an ethical perspective but from the point of view of fostering innovation. (See Nature Nanotech. 3 60 (2008) – a version of the paper is available for free download from )
    Despite the lip service that EPSRC and the other research councils pay to the concept of public engagement, they continue to conflate “societal benefit” with “wealth creation”. In the research councils’ view, science “for the good of humanity” is simply research that maximises financial return for industry (or the academic sector) in terms of patents, spin-off companies, and IPR.
    Best wishes,

  2. Philip,
    thanks for your comments. I largely agree with you – but playing devils advocate i think that we need to be careful in using support for the arts as a rationale for calling for support for application-less science.
    You say you are
    “a firm believer in the value of *application-less* science. Just as great literature, music, and art in general enriches society, so too does great science.”
    However, it’s worth noting that the Art and Humanities research council (AHRC) last year receieved about £90m funding, whilst the EPSRC received £740m alone (figures from their websites). Presumably the difference in levels of funding is justified via the economic impact that science has on UK Plc.
    Though its clear your arguement is also that application-less science often isnt application-less in the long term and will provide added-value given time.
    Perhaps the science community needs to work harder in promoting examples of this type of long term value?

  3. Hi, Rachel.
    The article to which I linked in my previous post provides a long list of examples of basic research feeding technological “spin offs”. In addition, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit stated in 2006 that the long-term economic return on basic research is effectively “incalculable” (see reference in article).
    There is of course a big difference in the budgets for AHRC and EPSRC, as you state. My argument is not that science and technology aren’t connected, rather it’s that they’re not synonymous. Science of course underpins technological development which in turn is a key economic driver. However, and this is key, why should the taxpayer subsidise the R & D programmes of multinationals via academia-industry links in order to improve the UK’s “wealth creation” potential? “Wealth creation” and “societal good” are very different concepts, despite RCUK’s and New Labour’s thinking to the contrary.
    To address your final point, I would argue that the science community *has* a history of working very hard at justifying basic research in terms of long-term economic impact – see, for example, the comments by Llewlyn-Smith in the paper linked to in the previous post.
    To close, however, I’d like to put two questions to you:
    1. Is there a value in science without application? That is, is there a value in society accruing scientific knowledge which does not necessarily produce a financial return?
    2. Does your answer change if accruing that knowledge *necessitates* spending a substantially greater amount of money than our total finanical support for the arts? If so, why?
    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Philip, Rachel
    Fascinating discussion. I will lower the tone somewhat and talk practicalities. The interesting thing about initiatives like SfH is to see whether they actually result in anything other jolly good ideas. The second half of innovation is realising ideas and it is this where money comes in. There may be a value in science without application but innovation it ain’t. As part of my work on corporate open innovation I have realised that there are many good ideas out there that are in effect still-born for want of time, money or a route forwards. And from SfH’s perspective, you can’t eat ideas.

  5. Hi, David.
    Thanks for your comment. I’m particularly interested in your statement:
    “There may be a value in science without application but innovation it ain’t.”
    Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, I’d argue that this doesn’t hold true at all. A piece of basic science – which, let’s say, did not produce any direct application – can seed many, many other different ideas and approaches if published in the open literature. **Innovation cannot be second-guessed**: great ideas and inventions can be triggered from so many sources. True (world-changing) innovation certainly does not arise from the simplistic and clueless knowledge transfer strategy currently being imposed by RCUK and DIUS on academic research.
    In this sense, I guess I have to agree with a colleague from industry who has told me in the past that they did not believe that any piece of science could be classed as “application-less”. My (admittedly convoluted) argument is, however, two-fold: (i) There is a value in basic science which is not motivated by any type of application and which may never directly produce an application; (ii) However, basic science has a remarkably strong history of “spinning off” technological break-throughs. While this so-called “linear model” of innovation has been roundly disparaged for quite some time, describes why the criticisms are far from convincing.
    Best wishes,

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