Bryan Lawrence : Baker Report

Bryan Lawrence

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Baker Report

Treasury via the Office of Science and Innovation1 is putting a good deal of pressure on the research councils2 to contribute to UK wealth by more effective knowledge transfer. The key document behind all of this is the Baker Report. It's been hanging around since 1999, having more and more influence in the way the research councils behave, but from my perspective it's finally really beginning to bite, so I decided I'd read the damn thing, so people would stop blindsiding me with quotes.

The first, and most obvious thing to note, is that it really is about commercialisation, and it's driven by government policy objective of improving the contribution of publicly funded science to wealth creation. But right up front (section 1.9) Baker makes the point that the free dissemination of research outputs can be an effective means of knowledge transfer, with the economic benefits accruing to industry as a whole, rather than to individual players. Thus the Baker report is about knowledge transfer in all its forms.

The second obvious point is that with all the will in the world, the research councils can't push knowledge into a vacuum: along with push via knowledge transfer initiatives, there needs to be an industry and/or a market with a will to pull knowledge out! Where such industry is weak or nonexistent there is the strongest case to make research outputs freely available as a methodology for knowledge transfer.

Some of my colleagues will also be glad to know that the presumption is that the first priority of the research councils should be to deliver their science objectives:

Nothing I advocate in this report is intended to undermine the capacity of (the Research Councils) to deliver their primary outputs.

Baker actually defines what he calls knowledge transfer:

  • collaboration with industry to solve problems (often in the context of contract research for industry)

  • the free dissemination of information, normally by way of publication

  • licencing of technology to industry users

  • provision of paid consultancy advice

  • the sale of data

  • the creation and sale of software

  • the formation of spin out companies

  • joint ventures with industry

  • the interchange of staff between the public and private sector.

Given that Baker recognises the importance of free dissemination of information it's disappointing that he implies that data and software are not candidates for free dissemination. Of course, he was writing in 1999, when the world of open source software was on the horizon, but not really visible to the likes of Baker, so I would argue that the creation of open source software by the public sector research establishment would not only fit squarely within these definitions had he been writing today, but he might have explicitly included it (indeed he probably would have been required to). In terms of free dissemination of data, most folk will know I'm working towards the formal publication of data, so that fits in this definition too.

I was also pleased to see (contrary to what others have said to me), that Baker explicitly (3.17 and 3.18) makes the point that knowledge transfer is a global activity, and the benefit to the UK economy will flow whether or not knowledge is transferred directly into UK entities or via global demand. The key point seems to be that the knowledge is transferred, not where it is transferred to (although he sensibly make the point that where possible direct UK benefit should be engendered).

Where it starts to go wrong, or at least, the reader can get carried away, is the emphasis in the report on protecting and exploiting Intellectual Property. At one point he puts it like this:

the management of intellectual property is a complex task that can be broken down into three steps; identification of ideas with commercial potential; the protection and defence of these ideas and their exploitation..

There is a clear frame of thinking that protecting and defending leads to exploitation, and this way of thinking is very easy to lead one astray. It certainly doesn't fit naturally with all the methods of knowledge transfer that he lists! It can also cause no end of problem for those of us with legislative requirements to provide data at no more than cost to those who request it (i.e. particularly the environmental information regulations, e.g. see the DEFRA guidance - although note that EIR don't allow you to take data from a public body and sell it or distribute it without an appropriate license so the conflict isn't unresolvable).

Baker does realise some of this of course, he makes the point that:

There is little benefit in protecting research outputs where there is no possibility of deriving revenues from the work streams either now or in the future.

I was amused to get to the point where he recognises that modest additional funding would reap considerable reward, but of course that money hasn't transpired (as far as I can see, but I may not be aware of it). As usual with this government, base funding has had to stump up for new policy activities. (This may be no bad thing, but it's more honest to admit it - the government is spending core science money on trying to boost wealth creation. Fine, and indeed we have been doing knowledge transfer, and will continue to do so, from our core budget, but the policy is demanding more).

The final thing to remember is that the Baker report is about the public sector research establishment itself, my reading of it definitely didn't support the top-slicing of funds from the grant budgets that go to universities to support knowledge transfer, but that's what is happening. Again, perhaps no bad thing, but I don't see Baker asking for it (although there is obvious ambiguity, since it covers the research councils, but when a research council issues a grant, the grant-holding body gets to exploit the intellectual property).

So the Baker report was written in 1999, but government policy is being driven by rather more recent things too. Over the next couple of months, I'll be blogging about those as well (if I have time). One key point to make in advance is that knowledge transfer can and now does include the concept of science leading to policy (which is of course a key justification for the NERC activities)

1: that's the new name for the Office of Science and Technology - such a new name that as of today their website hasn't caught up (ret).
2: Actually it applies to the entire public sector research establishment, so it includes all the directly funded science activities of the government departments as well as the research councils (ret).

Categories: strategy

This page last modified Wednesday 26 April, 2006
DISCLAIMER: This is a personal blog. Nothing written here reflects an official opinion of my employer or any funding agency.