Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for the ‘Intellectual property’ Category

Research Funding: Funding for Outputs, Please, and not for Ego

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Chris Horn has written, “Commercial success, at least in IT, is not driven by the size of R&D spend.” This is very true, in Ireland as elsewhere.

There has been concern expressed in Ireland by various sources recently about the lack of commercial impact from university research. A critical reason for this, from my observations, is that the objective of research funding in Ireland has been far too much focused on ego rather than output.

The former, funding for ego, includes the following, quite dysfunctional aspects from the point of view of the whole system of human capital. It takes the form of funding units of activity that are hermetically sealed off from the natural hinterland in the university system. Included here are:

  • the lack of any role in undergraduate teaching or curriculum,
  • separate physical location, and
  • reporting lines that are outside mainstream university structures.

This is a weakness in current research funding in Ireland, i.e. how the funding is spent on highly profiled yet splendidly isolated activity.

Another dysfunctional aspect is that related and complementary disciplines, and vital supply lines of expertise from various disciplines, have all now been ended, in the limited form that these were once present. Mathematics and astronomy come immediately to mind, where there is enormous negativity among public servants.

This has been backed up by views among senior public servants that are disparaging and dismissive of those disciplines and of the higher education system as a whole. A recent example from the Government of Ireland’s Chief Scientific Adviser: “It’s very difficult to herd cats, but I can certainly change the position of their feeding bowl.” Or another Director-General of Science Foundation Ireland: “SFI funding is social welfare for universities”.

How to achieve commercial and social impact based on scholarship and learning is as follows. In measuring outputs the multifaceted forms of all of these need to be considered. Innovative ways to find and achieve impact on the economy are crucial to both the system outputs and the quantification of the system processes. What is needed is a whole system approach, starting with higher education which has come to be the major context for research and scholarship, and its spin-off and launchpad impact. Hence the importance of the roles of all disciplines in the body of knowledge, and understanding outputs rather than the pursuit of an ego-based system.

  • Portfolio management, across all of education, commercialization and business, scholarship, and public leadership are crucial in order to ensure continuity through natural and strategically planned evolution and growth.

  • Integration, firstly into the higher education system and more generally into the commercial and governance fabric, is vital for sustainability too.

Those are my two foremost requirements for a properly functioning research and scholarship system, that will be productive over the long term. They are my own motivation as a researcher and as a research leader, with a long track record in scholarship and research commercialisation with impact which is non-ego driven. Over time, I have observed just how very wasteful and unsustainable the alternative is.


Pharmaceutical products as the new software: considerations on intellectual property and innovation

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Consider what pharmaceutical products really are: a type of software. They are expensive to produce and essentially have zero cost to reproduce. Furthermore, a crucial property of software is how it is associated with a very rich ecology of intellectual property rights. Since new product innovation in pharmaceuticals is at a low level, globally, it is an interesting idea that software in general could be looked at as a future-oriented role model for innovation.

Not just software is explored in my wide ranging article on this (see below). Research publishing is also, and the move towards open access in particular in the life sciences. I also deal with the scientific method, arguing that the scientific research process itself ought to be considered as an output of research, and a very important one too.

Fionn Murtagh,
“Intellectual Property in Publishing and Research: Open Access in Biotechnology, Life Sciences, and Software”,
CEPIS UPGRADE, The European Journal for the Informatics Processional, Vol. XI, issue no. 4, August 2010, pp. 50-64. Full issue of this journal at:

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2010/10/10 at 12:04

Case Study of How Knowledge Economy Triggered Industrial Growth

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Some interesting perspectives arise out of recent work that looks at the origins of copyright intellectual property in Germany and Britain in the 19th century. Most interesting is the vantage point offered on the implications for innovation in science, engineering, and technology generally. The view emerging from this work is that wide circulation of scientific, engineering and technical books was highly influential in the growth and scaling of German industry (Krupp, Siemens etc.) in the 19th century.

Unlike in France and Britain, in the 19th century the German lands witnessed an unparallelled knowledge explosion. In the year 1843 alone there were 14,000 new publications in German, which is, pro rata for population, about today’s level. About 1000 new publications were then appearing each year in Britain. The massive output in German included novels but was mostly scientific. Because of this, it is suggested that the underdeveloped, agricultural German lands caught up with the colonial powers in terms of technological and social development during the 19th century.

The British introduced copyright in 1710. Prussia did so in 1837. Copyright was a considerable time being established though in the German lands. The result was that in Britain, books were a luxury, produced in runs of up to 750 copies, bought by the rich and powerful, but also guaranteeing profits for publishing houses. In the German lands, a way was found to face down the lack of copyright and breaching of any and all ownership rights: a dual market was developed with inexpensive paperbacks to target first mover advantage, and to undercut copies made by others.

A most interesting market developed in practical and applied treatises and manuals in chemistry, mechanics, machines and production, optics, steel production, and other areas. Many professors supplemented their income through the huge demand for scientific and engineering knowledge of all sorts. This was the age that gave rise to the big industrialists, like Alfred Krupp and Werner von Siemens.

However as copyright came in increasingly from the 1840s onwards, and the cheap editions became less and less common, but prices went up and up, the generalizing of author rights was no substitute at all for what had been so lucrative beforehand for author and beneficial for reader, and for wider society.

Interesting perspectives. Could we have today anything like the possibility of markets and economic sectors “developed in practical and applied treatises and manuals”, based on open innovation models? The answer is clearly yes, considering all the crowd-sourced, web-based possibilities.

But in health, governance, education and other areas, we still have a considerable way to go, before quality of information and knowledge are what they should be. A job – a most inspiring job – needs to be done, to turn today’s 21st century innovation models, whether open or proprietary, into a deep and broad citizen science.

The book at issue here is Eckhard Höffner’s Geschichte und Wesen des Urheberrechts, Band 1, Band 2. Verlag Europäische Wirtschaft, München, 2010. A review is available in Der Spiegel and online in English.

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2010/09/05 at 20:54

Technology and Research: Alternating Leadership

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One big change in recent years, independent of the economic downturn in the West, is that the societal problems have ratcheted up very significantly. It is clear enough that the economic downturn in the West has been severely aggravated by these societal problems.

Such societal problems include those relating to climate, transport, energy, and so on.

So, for example, China plans to invest more than USD 3 trillion by 2020 on expanding its railway networks.

Or in order to exploit nine wind parks off the UK coast, the UK is envisaging investing 110 billion euro.

We know only too well the financial engineering issues that must be addressed in the West. For example, in 2006, the private household debt in the US was at the level of over USD 12 billion.

What we have is a very wide range of technologies, relating to environment, transport, finance, and many other areas, that are urgently and critically in need of innovation. In other words, new research is urgently needed.

A leading contrary example from recent times where it was otherwise, where we had research-led technology, was in the origin of the information infrastructure of our global society. I am referring to the web. In the years leading up to 1993, the http protocol was developed by Tim Berners-Lee and his physicist colleagues as a document exchange system. In early 1992, undergraduate student Marc Andreessen wrote and released the XMosaic browswer, a graphical user interface. The mix allowed the spark to move from high energy physics and university environment to the world of business. It was the spark that happened in early 1993 that set off the Dot Com boom years, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, Finland’s telecoms-based recovery from 1994, and much more.

What is different now is that that we are again in a period of technology-led research, where technology is putting demands on us as researchers, as engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Our work processes are as important as our outputs. Very clearly too “science” is not just the restricted domains that have been demarcated in the English language under this term, but have to include all areas of the human and social sciences too. Technology – social requirements – is now in the driving seat relative to science, broadly understood.

Just one example of the implications of this: take batteries, that are fundamental in the electric cars now being developed. Small companies are pursuing lines of enquiry, large corporations are ambitiously staking out technologies and markets, policy makers are trying to get their heads around the complex deployment scenarios, others are modelling – mathematical, financial, physical, and then there are university labs and many researchers in different disciplines. My point is that there is no essential difference at all between university lab and company research and deployment. Nor also is there any real difference between blue skies thinking and practical, applied demonstrator or beyond. There is no pipeline here. There is just the technology needs that are immediately and directly motivating and driving (in every sense!) the research.

For technology and for research, opportunity beckons.

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2010/05/11 at 23:15

Can Quality Survive in Our Web 2.0 World?

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The views of Jaron Lanier, and his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto”, Knopf, New York, express well the major worry as regards the direction our information infrastructure is moving.

To take a step backwards, in our current crisis of innovation (innovation is all that can ultimately take us out of the global downturn) it is useful to note how all of our society’s information infrastructure has come from publicly funded research and education. For the web itself, this includes in particular document management in physics, and the user interface from computer science.

But recently a very dark and gloomy picture is emerging. The “wisdom of the crowd” seems to more often result in deep-going anti-intellectual behavior. Mediators and information aggregators alone, it seems, generate vast revenue streams, through advertizing mostly, and the primary producers of ideas and information are locked out and potentially even starved out after they have served their role.

Lanier’s laying out of these issues goes far and deep. In seeing a contribution by cloud computing to the financial collapse in 2008, he notes: “The core issue is that when someone owns a key node of the network through which everyone’s information flows, the position is so advantageous that it undermines the very notion of an economy. It is like owning everyone’s blood.” Lanier is not opposed to the technology. Climate change, he notes, cannot be understood or even properly detected without cloud computing. And yet there is a problem that he sees as originating in “the fantasy that information is alive in its own right”.

What is sorely needed in regard to the evident autonomy (accepted: fetishism too) of data and information is a great deal more understanding of the currents and streams and rivers that underpin the data and information. These currents, streams and rivers of data and information are necessary for every minute of individual and social life. How is this to be addressed? Data and information need to be seen as part and parcel of the myriad individual and social narratives that are continually made and remade.

I aspire strongly to the finding of narrative quality even if, often enough, quality must have truck with quantity. For a good start on this, see my 2008 Boole Lecture or my 2005 Correspondence Analysis book. The deep semantics of information can be analyzed. Having some handle therefore on meaning, that ability can be taken subsequently in the direction of promoting quality. That’s the dream: to have radically new ways of tracing out the rivers and streams of narrative meaning in information in any form (text, spoken, visual, etc.).

There is a long way to go but there is a lot of hope of having innovative ways of addressing the information and data problems – indeed nightmares – that Lanier illuminates. In spite of the instrumentalism and reductionism of the age, interest in finality, in quality, and in ethics, have not disappeared. As one small example of that, a recent talk in Dublin (“Against reductive explanation”) by the noted Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor was packed out with maybe 400+ in attendance.

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2010/01/31 at 17:17

Industry-University Research Collaboration: Do We Have It (Mostly) Wrong?

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Interesting analysis by Loet Leydesdorff, “The university-industry knowledge relationship: analyzing patents and the science base of technologies”, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55 (11), 991-1001, September 2004 or see preprint. From the conclusions:

“The science-based model of university-industry collaborations was shaped in the 1980s with biotechnology as the prime example … Our data for 2002 suggest that this pattern has now been established as a dominant pattern … Information and communication technologies, for example, have not led to similar patterns of formalized exchanges …

These results suggest that one should be aware that policy-makers tend to think about university-industry relations in general terminologies, but that these relations are mainly shaped in the knowledge base of the bio-medical sector. Other sectors may contain mechanisms for integration and knowledge-transfer that are completely different from these bio-medical innovations. Thus, one should not generalize easily from the experience with biotechnology and bio-medicine to other sectors of industry or disciplines of science. Biotechnology is a specific mode of interrelationship between science and industry.”

Some things here dovetail well with the report to the UK Government of Paul Wellings in September 2008, “Intellectual Property and Research Benefits“. This report points to how patenting is good for some fields but largely irrelevant for others. The report draws implications of this, for example that universities should look for consultancy and other relationships with industry as an important goal in many sectors.

It seems that Bayh-Dole is fast approaching its (general, anyway) sell-by date. This is a point also made foreceably in Loet Leydesdorff and Martin Meyer, “The Decline of University Patenting and the End of the Bayh-Dole Effect“, Scientometrics (forthcoming).

There are big implications of all of this too to what constitutes research, and what research will be in the coming years. For more on this theme see my article “Open Access, Intellectual Property, and How Biotechnology Becomes a New Software Science“.

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2009/12/13 at 12:36

Future Internet: at the Innovative Core of Ireland’s Smart Economy

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A talk I gave recently to the Irish Future Internet Forum is available FMurtagh_SFI_3dec2009_v3.

A few points from it:

  • ICT is even more a problem than a solution for our environment, and energy needs, and what can be done about this.
  • ICT is clearly on a collision course with planet Earth!
  • Europe has been something of a laggard in innovation in large swathes of ICT – and what can be done now.
  • From report to the Swedish EU Presidency – “one of the few examples of European innovation is the file sharing service Pirate Bay, which challenges current intellectual property rules”.

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2009/12/07 at 00:39