The Social Contract of Science
To know what to change to make universities more innovative in the way they manage science, we have to go back to the way our biomedical-industrial complex is constructed.
We have come a long way from the days when science was done by a gentleman scientist in a room in his mansion, supported by his own funds or those of a generous friend. Nowadays governments put a significant part of their GDP into supporting R&D. Much of this investment, about $50 billion per year in the United States alone, goes to our research universities. Governments justify this use of taxpayers’ money by pointing out, correctly, that unfettered research activities are the most effective way of fostering the innovation needed to address current and future challenges to society. Scientists also are motivated by the sheer beauty, elegance, and excitement of fundamental discovery, but this is an acquired taste, not usually shared by the general public!
To convert university research into something valuable for society requires interaction with the private sector. If investors and manufacturers see a potential market for an innovation, then the discovery moves efficiently out of the lab and into the market place. Not only does society get something it needs, as measured by its willingness to pay for it, but the manufacturing and marketing process creates jobs and economic growth.
The social contract of science, therefore, is that university scientists are given the freedom to pursue their research interests, supported by taxpayers’ funds, because the taxpayers have been convinced that potentially commercializable discoveries will be made, which will result in new products and economic growth. The contract specifies roles for the three stakeholders: governments, universities and the private sector.
In the life sciences, the system is not working well for all three stakeholders. Government is questioning whether it is getting sufficient value when its investment in university research generates one start-up company per $100 million dollars of research funding and one patent license for every $12 million. University scientists are being told that they must stop establishing fundamental biological principles but direct their research towards specific needs of society. Venture funding, especially seed funding for life science innovation, has almost dried up. Finally, the powerhouses of the biomedical industry, the large pharmaceutical companies, have few new products coming to market and are looking at a drop in income of over $100 billion in the next few years.
The crisis in the biomedical innovation world is what is frequently called a “wicked problem,” one that is challenging to solve because it involves interactions between disconnected entities. To solve this crisis requires that the stakeholders interact with each other more productively. We believe that research universities should take the lead.
[Editor's Note: This post is also appearing today on the QB3 website. It is part of Reg Kelly's plan to write an occasional series of mini-essays on connected themes, rather than commenting on the news of the day.]