Sunday, 17 January 2010

The knowledge in the closet

What's in your closet - hanging by their hooks...
14/01 was a big day for the agro-, food- and bio- people around the world going after European research grants (it was the deadline for the 2010 KBBE call of FP7 - a public research funding instrument in Europe, giving about 53 billion euros to research in the period from 2007 to 2013).

The persistently pending question, however, is: what happens to the results of all that research? Understandably, not all research efforts are successful; and even when they are successful, they don't necessarily lead to tangible results. There 's really nothing wrong with that; research is a venture into the unknown (well, actually it is a venture in the not fully known, but let's not stick onto that for the time being), thus has associated risks, mostly of financial nature. It is also understandable that some of the research carried out will end up calling for further research in order to reach a ready-to-exploit stage.

But what is the amount of that ready-to-exploit scientific knowledge? The last few years (or decades) the need from knowledge exploitation has become a policy priority. I can't judge if that has led to substantial results (I have no means to measure in an objective way) but at least I feel that a higher number of people in universities and companies are rather aware that there are ways to protect, trade and - in general - exploit new knowledge.

The current system for intellectual property protection has been widely promoted as a helpful tool for the quest of knowledge utilisation. While I can see the pluses, I can't help but wonder what could other players do, that have limited access to the resources needed for such a game. And what about knowledge that is already available in an "unprotected" form, that is, either published or unpublished - being kept in a closet full of paper, data CDs and other archiving means.

Surely, even more of that knowledge could be exploited; if not at a big scale, at least at a micro-scale, through a cooperation of scientists will small companies under short-term projects of low, affordable budget; something like the sales that shops have, only for science :-)

As an example, think about the valorisation of the waste from the fish processing factories. The large production plants often produce fishmeal or fish oil out of that, using available equipment suitable for their volumes of production. At low production volumes, however, although the principles remain the same, it is likely that no optimised processes are commercially available, which would be a relatively easy task for an engineer to design. Interestingly, the original research on that must have worked on laboratory-scale volumes and, thus, is likely to be closer to the desired application.

The same applies for most of the waste outputs of farming, where biotechnology could provide solutions, sometimes with no further research being necessary. One could argue that the driving force of additional income from such as effort is simply non-existent in those cases; the value of the products derived from those exploitation processes is only achievable if one has a distribution and sales network reaching the right market. And then, there is the risk of producing surpluses of secondary products, thus leading to a drop of their market value. True and true. The right answer depends on the actual case but, in general, it takes an "unbalanced" action to break a vicious circle.

Cooperation frameworks around that idea have been tried in a number of countries with encouraging results (e.g. the innovation vouchers scheme that has been tried in many places, including Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Greece, etc.). However, with big grants around asking for ambitious research, the priorities of most researchers are not shaped towards "low-tech" cooperation with small enterprises. While I admit it would be stupid to suggest throttling the funding for innovative research, I believe that a stronger mandate for exploitation through small companies should begin to form.

Yes, there will be implementation problems (e.g., how many small food companies would put innovation as a priority instead of growing production volumes or sales figures? how many of those companies would be willing to participate in such schemes?). And yes, the existing legal framework may not be very flexible around food innovation (e.g., putting a health-related claim on a foodstuff is not a trivial process - and that has a pretty good reason behind that - I might add). But the potential benefits are many-fold:
  • "Older" knowledge or published knowledge could find application in a way that could further benefit the original researcher or research group
  • "Older" knowledge or published knowledge could be transformed to practical innovation at a higher pace than entirely new, breakthrough knowledge
  • Small companies will get exposed to working together with scientists and vice-versa; possibly a beneficial exercise for both groups
  • The public profile of food research will improve
  • The mobilisation of private funds for research could be encouraged (many small sums of money instead of a few larger ones)
  • The competition between food producers would benefit - even at the regional level
It might be worth considering it in a more thorough way, especially now that the global financial crisis has reminded to us that "big" doesn't necessarily mean "stable".

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