Innovation policy ? how the Australians are thinking about it

The Australian federal government has just completed a review of its National Innovation system. Australian research and innovation policy-making tends to be broadly consultative, wide-ranging  and forward-looking, so I was interested to compare this with what the South African government is doing. Our IPR Act of 2008 is Bayh-Dole on steroids, insisting on commercialisation and patenting wherever possible, and apparently treating open innovation as the exception, not the rule. And speaking of rules, the Regulations impose layers of bureaucratic filters between the researcher and the innovation outcome.

I am still working through the Australian document to absorb its detail but it has some valuable insights and the overall thrust is clear: there needs to be a balanced system, in which commercialisation is but one strand of the innovation role that universities can play. Far from taking Bayh-Dole as gospel, there is a critical evaluation of such strategies and a re-evaluation of  what innovation policy should look like in the 21st century.

Moreover, the Australian government and the participants in the policy process are aware of the pitfalls in excessive patenting. They review the past record, warn against the damage that can be done by patent law that is not rigourous enough and advise against policies that could create patent thickets. Most interesting, there is a strong argument for this arena to be opened up, so that the participants in the innovation system have a strong say, rather than this being the exclusive domain of lawyers. This is a lesson that I think South African universities might need to learn – it appears that our academics are not engaging with the South African legislation, thinking that this is the domain of professionals.  

This Australian policy document reminds me of a recommendation from Arie Rip at an  early stage of the South African higher education policy process (2000):

The common mimetic route is to define the nature of capacity-building in terms of what is now seen as important. This may well be a recipe to become obsolete before one’s time … [T]he world (of science and more generally) may well evolve in such a way that present-day exemplars will be left behind. So developing countries should set their sights on what is important in 2010, rather than what appears to be important now – however difficult this will be politically. 1

The IPR Act of 2008 is unfortunately trapped in the 'mimetic route' that Rip warns about here. But what about Australian thinking in 2009? Here are some extracts that give some insight into the thinking that will inform policy review down south:

On the commercialisation of research:

Research commercialisation is not a core role for universities. Nevertheless, universities can play a vital role in the commercial process. In cases where the benefits of research are best achieved through commercial engagement, universities should, where possible, attempt to partner with appropriate stakeholders to achieve these goals. Such instances are in the minority and universities more commonly play a role of commercial significance through provision of vital research advancement, workforce training and substantial international links.

On the protection of intellectual property rights:

[T]here is a caveat which is increasingly important: The development of intellectual property is cumulative. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Because new knowledge always builds on old knowledge, the property rights we have erected to encourage innovation can actually obstruct it.

On the need to open up the question of patenting and IP beyond the legal profession and the IP industries:

Nevertheless the consideration of policy … is dominated by IP practitioners and by the beneficiaries of the IP system. We need the expertise of lawyers in this as in many other areas of policy but it is imperative that IP policy make the transition that competition policy made over a decade ago now, from a specialist policy area dominated by lawyers, to an important front of micro-economic reform.

On access and dissemination for social and economic benefit

Along with the rise in support for access to information has come a growing recognition of the need for users to be able to search and interact with data and content. Legal frameworks must also be developed to facilitate access and reuse. This points to the need for an Australian National Information Policy (or Strategy) that optimizes the generation and flow of ideas and information in the Australian economy. As the National Competition Policy (NCP) involved systematically scanning Australian institutions to optimize the operation of competition to enhance outcomes so National Information Policy would scan Australian institutions to optimize the generation and dissemination of information for social and economic benefit.

Thus for instance, unless it seriously undermines its commercial objectives of sale of product, the ABC should err on the side of making its content available over theinternet unless this has large opportunity costs. The presumption against free availability might be overcome where it would involve the foregoing of substantial commercial revenue from the sale of the content or there are large costs of hosting the necessary internet bandwidth (although in this latter case, peer to peer means of distribution should also be explored as should the diversion of funding from other activities and/or additional funding).

The advantages of  open science

To drive cumulative knowledge creation researchers and others must have access to high quality data and information on developments not just in their field but beyond. For instance, Jeff Furman and Scott Stern have calculated that Biological Resource Centres that are repositories of biological materials (including cell lines, microorganisms and DNA material) have boosted cumulative scientific knowledge by three times more than alternative institutional structures 2.Australian physicist Michael Nielsen has stressed the importance of unlocking scientific information in scientific journals to make it more easily discoverable, searchable and useable to enable the cross-disciplinary search for knowledge:

We should aim to create an open scientific culture where as much information as possible is moved out of people’s heads and labs, onto the network, and into tools which can help us structure and filter the information. This means everything – data, scientific opinions, questions, ideas, folk knowledge, workflows, and everything else – the works. Information not on the network can’t do any good.3

There is a lot more in this report – I recommend that South African researchers read it as they engage with our legislative process with an eye to preserving their expertise and independence in the process of ensuring that their research has maximum national impact.

1. Rip, A. (2000) Fashions, Lock-ins and the Heterogeneity of Knowledge Production. In Kraak, A. (ed.) Changing Modes: New knowledge production and its implications for Higher Education in South Africa. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

 2. Furman, J. and Stern, S., Standing Atop the Shoulders of Giants: The Impact of Institutions on Cumulative Research, National Bureau Economic Research Working Paper. 2004.