Precious few research discoveries will lead to a lucrative reward
Anyone who has ever tried to get a book into print would likely accept the view that there is more work involved in winning acceptance from a publisher than there is in actually writing the book in the first place.
There is a ferocious amount of work in knocking out page after page but the advice is to work at least as hard to get your manuscript over the threshold and accepted. I like to think that there is a similar challenge when a scientist sits down and decides to pen a paper on a difficult research problem.
Like fictional writing it has two parts, the initial creative activity involved in getting words and ideas down on paper and then the challenge of deciding what to do with the results of what could have been five years of hard slog.
Both authors have to deal with publishers who will be there to either to tell you why they won’t publish the work or why they are going to make your day by accepting it for publication as a book or in a big-name journal.
There is an extra dimension, something else to think about, for the researcher however. What should you do if the discoveries that have been made have a potential commercial value.
For the author of fiction the words and the story are the IP [Intellectual Property] and success will be measured by how many times this IP will be purchased and read with pleasure by the maximum number of people.
For the scientist, the IP is whether the results might be reapplied in a new product or process that can be sold or licensed on to the highest bidder.
It might be the discovery of how some small but important part of the immune system works, knowledge that would open up the potential for new drugs or better treatments. The value of the IP rockets if the knowledge can become the enabler for a blockbuster new pharmaceutical.
Roll things back to the 1960s or 1970s and few of those working in research here worried much about what their discoveries might be worth; research was most often conducted for its own sake although it was not that the greater good count not also be served by the activity.
Eamon de Valera was a long time supporter of research and science and, along with the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, he had the foresight to open the Medical Research Council of Ireland.
Based at Trinity College Dublin, the scientists were asked to develop treatments for TB, a disease that was rampant here at the time.
Vincent Barry led a team of nine scientists who failed to deliver on TB but in the process they discovered a cure for leprosy – clofazimine, which is still used today to treat the disease. The team did not become millionaires from their work but they did win international distinction given the importance of their discovery to human health.
Today no working scientist is unaware of IP and the potential financial implications of any science being conducted, whether it is in biochemistry, computing, engineering, or new materials, and rules governing IP are a part of their working contract.
Were he working at TCD today, Prof Barry would have found all the details in a document, Policy, Practice and Regulations on Intellectual Property published in 2015 but based on earlier iterations of similar documents dating back to 1986.
And he would have known that if IP did generate some cash it would be disbursed on a three-way split, one third each for the inventor, the Trinity school that hosted the inventor, and TCD central funds.
This does not mean that everyone is chasing the dollar rather than doing their research, and there are still plenty of researchers who need considerable encouragement to get them to exploit the potential of new knowledge.
Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Universities Association jointly fund an agency, Knowledge Transfer Ireland, set up specifically to see scientific discoveries commercialised.
And on October 25th EI launched an IP support grant to help companies commercialise their IP. Under the pilot scheme, companies can defray the cost of hiring specialist intellectual property attorneys who come into a firm and show them the value of the research activities. EI says it will help the company develop a formal in-house strategy for IP and how it should be handled.
One would have thought every researcher, whether in a public or private research conducting organisation, would be keenly aware of the financial potential of commercialisation.
But in the same way that only a tiny fraction of would-be authors will see their book in print, only a very few research discoveries will deliver a blockbuster.
But as the National Lottery put it, if you’re not in you can’t win.
‘‘ Vincent Barry led a team of scientists who failed to deliver on TB but in the process they discovered a cure for leprosy. The team did not become millionaires from their work but they did win international distinction