You might think that this is a simple question with a simple answer, but the truth is far from simple and this subject led to a very lengthy debate the last time I raised it with my colleagues. However, before we get to the subject a simple definition or two are needed:
- Science – what I mean by science is “experimental-based discovery science” of the type that is carried out in Universities. I do not mean industry-funded science, or research that involves review of a subject. Pure research, carried out for the sake of interest is often known as “blue-skies” research, but it can often lead to unexpected commercial outcomes.
- Ownership of science – by own I really mean how accessible is scientific information as it is access to the science that defines ownership. I hope this will become more clear as I develop this blog!
I guess before we get to ownership of science it is important to first explain how research is funded in the UK and how it is carried out in Universities:
There are a large number of funding sources available both in the UK and across Europe, of which the research councils and European research grants are the largest funders, but significant funding also comes from charities and from private sources. All of these types of funding are competitive and awarded to individual scientists, or groups of scientists who collaborate toward an overall goal.
Universities also receive direct funding of research from government, through the research councils, in the form of infrastructure awards (often based on how many research grants were awarded, but also on measured success of individual researchers). Sometimes, this funding is targeted at commercially-orientated research and sometimes at “blue-skies” research. In addition, there are various sources of infrastructure funding, to which universities can bid in a competitive way, in order to establish equipment or resources for research.
Finally, individual researchers may have access to funds that allow small research projects to be initiated, that are either university-based or belong to the individual within the university’s research framework (overheads and slush funds).
Establishing a research project:
Any full-time employee at a university can apply for a research grant and carry out research; although, to get a competitive grant the individual usually needs an established research profile. However, it is often a surprise to those outside of the university system that carrying out research is not a contractual requirement for a university employee, but simply something that is often expected or desired by the employer. So, academics do not have to apply for research grants and are not forced to do so – research usually springs from their own interests – and many academics only carry out teaching duties.
Those that want to engage in a research project have two ways to start:
- Join an existing research group and follow their own path within that research group.
- Establish a new research group, seek external funding and hope to gain sufficient expertise to follow the first funding with further funding – often a difficult pathway.
It is generally accepted that the chances of obtaining funding from most sources is at best 1:5, so it may well take five applications to get one grant, but sometimes this process also means changing the details in the grant application and also looking to a different funding sources – becoming an established researcher is not easy and may require many hours of reading and writing! Sometimes support comes from the university in the way of PhD studentships, which lend a pair of hands to the process of obtaining enough results to add weight to an initial application. In addition, some funding sources include grants aimed at new researchers 9often young scientists at the beginning of their career).
Measuring Research Ability:
In this modern era, where every work-based activity is monitored for efficiency, science is no different and grants are only awarded to researchers who have a strong rating in what is known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF – previously known as, the Research Assessment Exercise or RAE). The award of externally-funded grants is a major part of this exercise, but the other major measurement of research excellence is publishing in peer-reviewed journals and this now brings us to our main subject as this is the first measure of access to science. Without easy access to published research it is impossible to write a successful research grant proposal.
It should be clear from what I have already said that access to published science is the start point for writing any grant application. Strangely, despite the fact that the researcher carries out the research, he does not necessary have access to even his own published work. This is a quirk from using publishing houses to print and distribute published science, but is also a trap created by the REF exercise where a main requirement is to publish in high-impact journals to improve the REF-rating. However, these high-impact journals are usually owned by the major publishing houses and the general method for publication means that copyright lies with the publishing houses. This problem of access to published science is compounded by the fact that the publishing houses restrict access to published papers unless you subscribe, in one form or another, to the journal! Recently, there has been a strong movement amongst scientists to change the way science is published, but this is still a problem area. Some grants include sufficient funds to pay for “open-access” research papers, but many do not. In fact, a good illustration of this problem is how difficult it is for the general public to access published science – without a library subscription to a number of journals, the cost would be prohibitive.
In summary, even the best scientists do not have immediate access to their own published work, at best they depend on their university library to purchase journals that enable such access and as such they do NOT own their own research! If they have used grant funds to publish in an open access journal then they will be able to read and access that paper, along with anyone else in the world, and therefore they will have “bought” ownership of their research.
Invention, Patents and Ownership:
Of course, publishing research papers is only one aspect of research, but it is the primary means by which research is disseminated and as a consequence a very important aspect of science. However, some research leads to invention and under the British patent system that is the primary mechanism for obtaining a patent. A patent allows release of details of the science, publication to the general public, but uses the “strong arm of the law” to prevent the work being copied, allowing the inventor the right to commercial exploitation. If the research looks as though it may lead to commercialisation then a patent is a very important aspect for protecting the work and the ideas. Often a university will pay the costs of patent applications, but who owns the patent and who owns the research that led to it? There is no doubt that the researcher’s input is an absolute requirement for the invention, but university employees (in the UK) are subject to a clause in their contract that states that any invention, arising from research at the university, will belong to the university! One argument that is used to support this situation is that without the university’s infrastructure (especially high cost equipment) the invention might not be possible. So, a patent may have the inventor’s name on the front, but ownership is the university’s.
So, who really owns science? Well, it doesn’t really seem that it is the researcher (in many cases they cannot even guarantee that they can read their own papers); although, there are often benefits that come the way of the researcher that make the work worthwhile (such as reduced teaching loads), but overall science is a hobby at work and the real benefits are simply your name on papers, grants and patents. this may be best illustrated by DNA sequencing, which is named after the scientist who developed the technique – Sanger sequencing – and despite his recent sad death, Fred Sanger’s name will live on because of this. Very few scientists make money from their research, but it can be fun! However, there is a final aspect of all of this that should be the main thought of any budding scientist – RESEARCH IS OWNED BY SOCIETY – the benefits that come from research are unpredictable and varied, but the technological progress of recent years is one example of the benefits of good science and the description of the research should be freely available to everyone.