Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for June 2009

The Quiet Revolution in Research and Its Profound Impact on Society

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It has been predicted that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA, the Obama stimulus package) will create about 402,000 jobs for one year, through an additional investment of $20 billion in research. Accountability though it critical: “Within 2 years, the public will want to be informed about the impact of the stimulus on the economic recovery. Were the estimates accurate? How can they be validated? And, in the longer term, what were the impacts of the reinvestment strategy on scientific knowledge, economic growth, and job creation?” (See J. Lane, “Assessing the impact of science funding”, Science, 324, 1273-1275, 5 June 2009.) Research nowadays is no longer blue-skies, if it ever was.

Accountability of research and measurement of impact is high on the agenda everywhere now. Is this the end of altruistic, socially-beneficially research as it once was – or as it was once perceived? No, – research has become very different in the way it is structured and organized but, as I will show, hugely more relevant and more beneficial.

A first important point to make is that appearances are not always what they are held up to be. For example the 1968 social upheaval is often viewed in terms of youth versus authority. But as I exemplified in a recent article, in fact the May events served – at least in my example – to bring the academy closer to industry. Internships became popular as a result of 1968, with university students seeing internships now as an important indication of practical relevance of their work.

Research was once seen as a source of collective knowledge. Here the early Royal Society in 17th century London comes to mind, with so much care and attention given to collecting and describing practical life- and work-based experience of varied occupations. Or look at how the modern scientific period was begun in the century before then, on the back of voyaging and trading.

Research now has moved beyond these goals. Research has become the production of intellectual goods. Based on intellectual goods, research has become the production of intellectual properties.

We should understand intellectual property (IP) quite generally because there are areas where there is considerable evolution right now relative to traditional contexts. Consider e.g. research publishing itself. The research journal is usually traced to the Philosophical Transactions and the Journal des Sçavants, both started in 1665. Nowadays research journals dominate the scene for research and scholarly output. There are other outlets, including conference proceedings, books (monographs are at issue here), and in our more enlightened and also evolving times, data sets, software, and various forms of multimedia object. The trend towards reproducible research is only starting and has implications for data and software. We have therefore a changing landscape of research product and process, with attendant rights and responsibilities.

It would be nice to think that intellectual goods and IP in the research arena are showing the way forward for digital rights management. Maybe in the future the general roll-out to society at large of rights management in research will appear to us as reminiscent of how the web all started because physicists wanted to exchange documents.

So research has become the production of intellectual goods, some of which result in intellectual properties.

We have yet to arrive at a way to measure in the absolute what these intellectual goods bring to society. But it is clear that research has become the mainstay of any modern economy.

It is interesting to note though that powerful ways of measuring relative impact are now core to the way that research is carried out. Moreover the model of how research is comparatively assessed has become a mirror for many other areas of social activity. Examples: government processes; and business practice. Let me draw out just how the impact of research is assessed in a relative way.

Benchmarking has come to the fore, as a new managerial approach. This not a command and control, centralized, hierarchical way of organizing research or other social activities. Instead we have league tables, rankings, scorecards – a way to organize activities that is distributed and autonomous. This is not so much government any more as governance.

Universities everywhere look towards the Shanghai rankings; student satisfaction surveys in universities and institutes of learning are reported on in the newspapers; countries have their scorecards for telecoms infrastructure, for Business Expenditure on Research and Development, and so on; the UK had the Research Assessment Exercise and will have the Research Evaluation Framework, Australia will have its Excellence in Research for Australia; and so on and on. Within companies there are examples, and within governments lots of examples too. The rise of governance fits well with competitiveness through benchmarking. It fits really well with modern development models of the knowledge economy and of the nurturing of human capital.

There is a useful article by Isabelle Bruno in Lille on this, that links the new benchmarking-based, and competitiveness-oriented governance to the Lisbon strategy in Europe, – growing the European knowledge economy and associated human capital through research. Furthermore governance has a clear managerial principle underpinning it, where government could be said to have had an underpinning legal principle.

Since the 1990s, there have been enormous changes – behind the scenes – in research and the way it is structured on the global level. The mix of competition and cooperation is now at the core of research. Already significant aspects of government and of business are in tow. Government and business have taken on board how research is carried out and copied the benchmarking models established in research.

It is true that there is still evolution in how impact of research is measured in absolute terms. But in relative terms, what we see is that the impact of research is captured through competitiveness and innovation. These in turn have been taken on board as essential organizational drivers by governement and business.

Just like the web’s take-off through Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic browser in early 1993, once again research innovation – this time through organisation and a new dynamic – is changing society completely.

Going on from this, it will be very interesting to see how rights management and the myriad IP processes that have evolved and developed in research are generalized to all of society in the coming years. I have no doubt they will be, if only because research has established itself as the major source of innovation, change and renewal in our time.


Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/06/24 at 08:05