Innovate ’11 Patents, Science and Innovation
The UK Technology Strategy Board Innovate ’11 Conference last Tuesday (11th October 2011), attracted a large participation and a host of authoritative speakers, not least the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Rt Hon Vince Cable MP and the Minister of State for Universities and Science, The Rt Hon. David Willetts MP. The latter closing the day-long event with a question and answer session. During the course of this discussion, David Willetts chose to make a political point about how his predecessor Lord David Sainsbury had placed too much emphasis on ticking boxes over the number patents secured in the UK, irreverently dismissing their relevance – comments which stirred at least one member of the audience to respond in their defence.
I have a great deal of time for David Willetts as well as the policies being developed by the Coalition Government to promote science and innovation, particularly Technology and Innovation Centres, but I cannot agree with his apparently jaundiced view on patents. Contrary to the Ministers view, patents are particularly useful because they represent a measure of the output of research that demonstrates some level of commercial and economic potential. The reasoning behind this is that in the process of securing a patent, an invention has passed both the trial of the investment of effort and resources by the inventor and his/her institute or company to turn it into a basic product or process, and its examination by the patent office. (Passoa and Silva 2006). Given that a patent is only granted if it has: i) industrial applicability — the invention must be of practical use; ii) involved an inventive step — the invention must not be merely deduced by a person with average knowledge of the technical field; iii) novelty, that is, the invention must show some new characteristic which is not known in the bulk of existing knowledge in its technical field, then patents provide an indication that research has progressed beyond the stage of merely scientific interest to consideration of its potential impact in commercial terms. Use of patent numbers in this way provides an effective international standard and while it is acknowledged that it is less than a perfect measure of commercial value, (since many products and services can be developed on the basis of confidential knowhow), most other measures of research output are similarly imperfect.
Part of the reason that David Willetts may not wish patents to be used as a measure of research performance is simply because the UK does not compare as favourably on this measure relative to others (we are now trailing the Republic of Korea), and certainly in terms of the investment as Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) every patent generated by the UK is twice as expensive to produce as those in Japan and USA and more costly than each generated by Canada, Korea, Germany and Israel (Data from UNESCO Science Report 2010). Prof Mike Theodorou and I drew attention to the cost of UK research that lead to patents in the report entiitled Market-led Innovation Centres: A New Model for UK Innovation published in May 2011. On the basis of the £732 million of funding allocated for collaborative research between non-academic partners and Higher Education Institutes (Universities) in 2008/09, we estimated that the generation of each patent filed, cost on average, £349K. At that time we questioned whether this was acceptable, but had we based our calculation on the £4.1 billion allocated for all UK research, then the figures per patent filing would have been even less forgiving.
Patents are used as an indicator of the potential for commercial output from scientific research by most of the recognised international science and technology assessments and while it is not perfect, it does provide a globally acceptable standard. The UK has long been failing in the delivery of commercial value from its scientific research base and in turning this around we should be embracing not dismissing some of those indicators which may help us achieve this.
David Dent, CEO Dent Associates
Argentino Pessoa and Mário Rui Silva (2006) Patterns of R&D and Growth Performance: can a technological follower be converted into an economic leader? ERSA conference papers, European Regional Science Association. 23 pp.
David Dent and Mike Theodorou (2011) Market-led Innovation Centres: A New Model for UK Innovation published in May 2011. Dent Associates. 26 pp.
UNESCO Science Report 2010: The Current Status of Science around the World. UNESCO Publishing. 536 pp.