Innovation Infrastructure examined!

What is innovation?

When a thing is new, they say it isn't true
When its truth is finally acknowledged, they say it's not important
When its importance cannot be denied, they say it isn't new

With the current political emphasis on moving to "Net zero carbon" innovation will obviously be needed in that journey. I have included a special page: COP26 with comments and links. I'll update this and invite suggestions (via LinkedIn) for additional material here


An eye-watering amount of tax payer's money has been spent or is slated to be spent by the UK and the EU on initiatives to foster commercial exploitation of science and technology ideas. Have we and will we get value from this? Enterprises will obviously applaud it, but will government initiatives divert essential funds from the real engine of science and technology: the research base, with a negative impact on ideas and the supply of young trained scientists coming out of Universities, Medical schools and Research Organisations. COVID has already undermined the science base (although where researchers have done great work related to the pandemic, this area of endeavour has seen enormous benefit and we are all indebted to them). But going forward, will we have to depend on charities like Wellcome and Cancer Research to keep the broad based life science research funding taps open?

How can administrations effectively foster innovation? Where do public sector funds get the most "bangs for their bucks ?": The science base? § Science & Technology incubators? § Large research centres? § Collaborative public-private sector initiatives § Competitive direct company awards § All of the above? Or would "market forces" just drive innovation anyway without tax payer's cash? Like the image of a molecular modelling researcher above, innovation is hard to grasp as it's virtual by definition. My article attempts to find some pointers (but not answers!)
It is great to have a UK Minister for Science Technology and Innovation. It is good news for the huge diversity of individuals and organisations who will manage, encourage, support or deliver outcomes in these areas. Now we need a common understanding what these titles mean. This is especially important for politicians and media, but also for the general public (who directly or indirectly pay for all these things). As the public purse is finite, it's important for government to know where and when to apply funding and devise legislation for the most effective outcomes. Public sector funded scientific, technological and innovation infrastructure is inevitable, but this in itself drains the available finance. In the past "Quangos" (Quasi Non Governmental Organisations) and a multitude of other other organisational "cost heads" have grown like Topsy. Keeping their own house in good fiscal order in support of innovation needs to be taken very seriously by the UK government

The online resource: Dictionary.com gives the following (other sources are of course available).

  • Science
  • Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation [including thinking: as in thought experiments].
  • Technology
  • The branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.
  • Innovation
  • An innovation is often a new product, but it can also be a new way of doing something or even a new way of thinking. Innovation is most commonly associated with business and technology, but it happens in any field where people introduce change, including the arts, medicine, politics, cooking, languageā€”even philosophy and religion. Example: The internet changed society and is often considered the ultimate example of innovation, but it was built on the backs of many smaller, previous innovations.

Science: the Discipline of Curiosity

It isn't possible to legislate for scientific discovery. Nor can discoveries or novel understanding result from caucuses committees or groups. Discovery or new understanding arises almost uniquely in a single mind that has been curious to know how something in the physical (or the abstract, mathematical) world works. Classical examples are Newton and Einstein but of course the list (over time) goes on indefinitely. Science is a 'bottom up', not a 'top down' activity. The best that governments (in the public sector) businesses (in the private sector) or benefactors/sponsors (in private enterprise) can do to foster science is to provide the necessary infrastructure (physical and economic) and wait for results. Nor is it necessary for public or private sector bodies to rattle a money tin or promise rewards. Scientific discovery is its own reward. Yes, the side effect is peer recognition, promotion and perhaps tenure, but the promise of such benefits are not generally the motivation that creates scientific advance.

Technology: Spotting real world applications

A discovery or an idea (an Eureka moment!) is the wellspring of technology. Almost anything new can be turned into a product or process. Further and related discoveries may be made but the initial pattern includes consolidation, refinement, simplification and application. This is the time when more individuals can become very beneficially involved: the arrival of so called 'critical mass': different minds to take the discovery or idea forward in one or more directions.

Innovation: realising real world applications as processes or products

Governments are focussed on increasing prosperity and jobs, This is the opportunity for legislatures and companies to encourage and support technology with commercial promise. The obvious ways for them to do so is to partner with the private sector to get technology past an economic hurdle (provided that this really exists: companies are always happy to take public sector support, whether this is essential or not!) and lower regulatory hurdles as safely and effectively as possible. Governments can accelerate the progress from ideas to market in many ways not possible for enterprises. The recent rapid progress of the scientific, technical and regulatory pathway from laboratory to COVID-19 vaccine is an obvious example

References

My own articles referenced below are dated, but I feel still have relevance! Sadly a whole slew of my commentaries in Nature and TIBS (Elsevier) are still imprisoned behind paywalls. This is an area where the big publishers could definitely help innovation by releasing a huge amount of science research that has mostly been paid for already by the tax-payer! A number of initiatives are tackling this, including Research Gate which indexes many of my publications (in abstract form!). These can be accessed by registering with Research Gate or going to Pub Med for open access (to the abstracts). Sadly my commentaries are NOT abstracted . .

  • Life Sciences Vision The definitive document setting out the government's healthcare vision
  • Life Sciences Innovation (Mediaplanet)
  • Biotechnology - what does industry want from the science base? Michael J Geisow (1991) in: Biotopics Trends in Biotechnology 9 pp. 338-339
  • Biotechnology transfer: should administrations stimulate or steer? Michael J Geisow (1991) in Biotopics: Tends in Biotechnology 9 pp. 367-368

The Acronym Factory: European Commission

The one that got away!

Disclaimer: Here I write about the European Commission as I personally experienced it in the 90s. I had and have a high opinion of the officers I met who were well informed and engaging. How many are still in post I do not know but I thank them for their warm welcome to an outsider. Since then there have undoubtedly been many changes so my comments should not be taken to imply how things are today. But there always is a danger as in many other areas, unchecked, the scope, scale and economic admistration of public sector-supported research and development can grow alarmingly and develop a self-justifying stance toward any external attempts to slim it down.

Between 1990 & 1995. I was pleased to visit the European Commission HQ in Brussels on many occasions as a contractor, consultant and grant holder. My first impression was the different language spoken: Eurospeak! A small booklet helped me with the dozens of Acronynms which referred to various European programmes and intiatives. But I struggled a bit with two essential EU concepts:

Concertation: (especially in European politics): cooperation, as among opposing factions, aimed at effecting a unified proposal or concerted action.

Subsidiarity: The Community [now the EU] should take action on research only if the objectives can be better acheived by the [EU] than by the Member States acting on their own. Article 130h of the Treaty of the European Union also requires the Community and the Member States to co-ordinate their activities so as to ensure that national policies and Community policy are mutually consistent. It must be acknowledged that not enough has been done on this point so far. A new approach is needed, with the detailed procedures tailored to each research area. from: Biotechnology Reort EUR 16154 EN

If having read these statements of intent you haven't changed your mind about BREXIT, nothing will.

The result of many months of meetings at the Commission by representatives from 16 member states plus the EMBL and the European Commission

I was also introduced to CUBE (Concertation Unit for Biotechnology in Europe) I was taken aback to find a room filled with pamphlets, reports, original publications, surveys and assorted literature. This unit was being run down while I working at the commission and I have to hold up my hand and say that I was generously granted some of the remains of the CUBE budget to assist me in running my European protein science conference (in Montpellier), but it did make me wonder how much of that sort of internal, large scale information gathering excerise went on and to what end.

One of the reasons for my frequent visits to the Commission was as the UK representative of protein science on the "Contact Group" (I was invited by the DTI as I was the co-ordinator of the LINK protein engineering programme). Representatives from all the (then) EU member states met on numerous occaisons to provide an overal picture of the state of protein science research in their own nations. Here is where the notions of concertation and subsidiarity came up frequently. The representatives (apart from myself) were all active scientists: heads of departments in the main.

All the invited scientists were well aware (and even beneficiaries like myself) of the European Framework Programmes which supported trans-national collaborations within the EU. Our encouragement for giving up our time to survey protein science in our respective countries and provide reports with very many names and contact details in a standardised format was that we believed that our concerted effort would help drive more grant support to what we saw as a vital area of research underpinning progress in the whole of the life sciences.

In the end everyone felt rather disappointed when the final publication was assembled and had no evident follow up. I thought of CUBE and wondered if it would simply find a resting place on the overstocked shelving. I was staggered, even at the time, to learn that there was a will to apply the excerise I and representatives from all of the then member states had just completed to all areas of biotechnology! Perhaps readers will remember the demise of Rimmer in the epic TV series"Red Dwarf" . .?


Re-branding the quangos: politics or progress?

As a career life science research worker, then an indepedent bioscience consultant I had direct experience of a number of the UK Research Councils; especially the SERC, BBSRC and MRC (now all rebranded as parts of UKRI!). My impression of each of these was very good. Take the MRC. Their brief was to administer their public sector fiscal allocation to best support UK fundamental science which would lead to improvements in healthcare and well being. Their early strategy was to identify and fund individual bright minds. This policy certainly paid off: some remarkable discoveries came from this policy:

  • Structure of DNA (James Watson and Francis Crick)
  • Chemical sequencing of proteins (Fred Sanger)
  • Chemical sequencing of DNA (Fred Sanger)
  • The monoclonal antibody (Cesar Milstein)
  • The 3D atomic structure of proteins (Max Perutz & John Kendrew)

There are many more: I have just picked out the most enabling and dramatic. At the time the MRC was criticised that such fundamental and life science revolutionising discoveries (paid for by the tax payer) were placed in the public domain with no opportunity for UK plc to benefit directly economically from them. It's now obvious to everyone just how much revenue could have been raised if (some) of these technologies were licenced in the way that enabling technologies are today. But then of course the counter argument is that without placing such fundamental knowledge in the public domain, the whole of Life Science would have been held back. And of course there was always the reputation and career of the discoverer(s) to be considered.

Now we are in the Information era, there are more opportunities for the beneficial exploitation of UK funded basic science discovery and development. There is licencing, spin-out company formation and even "Wikis" where a certain amount of information is placed into the public domain with a invitation to send in ideas for applications (not apps please note) or add value in some way in return for a share of (any) commercial exploitation arising from the successful use of the application or added value suggested. Individuals or organisations who make successful suggestions can gain a share of eventual profits which arise from their contribution. But always remember the success which arises from recognising the eureka moments of individual scientists and ensure they get the backing they need to bring their ideas to fruition.

More to be added here . . .