Mind to Market

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Basic Research

This is where is all begins; from the creative minds of scientists allowed to pursue their ideas, hunches, dreams, etc. The main mission of scientific research institutions is to conduct basic research; research whose goal is the advancement of knowledge. It is a creative and exploratory process that is motivated by the curiosity of the researcher. Basic research is conducted without a targeted end point; it proceeds from one discovery to the next without a firm idea of what the next discovery will be. Nevertheless, basic research often uncovers new inventions that may have practical applications, applications that may even become commercial.

The process of conducting and funding basic research at an academic institution follows a cyclic pattern: the generation of ideas, grant submission and funding, research, publication of results which leads to the generation of more ideas and the cycle continues. Due to the close relationship between university research labs and the government granting organizations, and the entrenched processes the support the cycle, this cycle can continue as a virtually closed system. The bill, however, is picked up by the taxpayer, a taxpayer who may be interested in where all this money is going. This leads to two ways out of the virtuous (vicious) cycle:

  1. The government granting organizations want to provide some sort of metric for demonstrating the benefits of their work.
  2. The research organizations want to generate revenues from sources other than the granting organizations.

Although numbers of publications and/or patents are metrics that are often used to measure the productivity of research, they fall a bit flat to the general public. What the public seems most interested in are: jobs and products. If research can generate jobs and the corresponding revenues and/or produce products that are useful to society, the general public will support the spending programs.

The virtuous cycle of grant writing, research and publication is well trod and fairly reliable, the path of technology transfer is much less so. Although there have been attempts to provide ways of funding this path, it is nevertheless fraught with risk. And, for most researchers, embarking on the tech transfer path may mean a reduction in their research productivity; something most researchers that have worked hard to build a reputation are loath to do.

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