By Professor David Wield
Reporting from the Science and Innovation 2013 conference at the QEII Conference Centre in Westminster
There is an economic and moral imperative to innovate. Yet, advances in the life sciences meant to deliver significant socio-economic benefits in health, agriculture and the environment are often constrained by developmental and regulatory dynamics. This was the basis for a session organised by the new Innogen Institute (daughter of the ESRC Innogen Centre) on the 'Life Science Innovation Imperative' at the Science and Innovation Conference.
As an Innogen member I was incredibly proud to see our research being picked up and used. Innogen’s four presentations addressed current issues affecting our ability to innovate – covering topics, including innovation and its relationship to the real economy, intellectual property rights, innovation-industrial policy, private and public sector collaborations, and the goals and practicalities of the responsible research and innovation framework - and brought a wide range of positive questions and comments. It’s always good to hear someone say: 'this is the best thing I’ve heard on this topic'.
Iain Gillespie kicked off, explaining that he was the first speaker after lunch because he was the loudest. Indeed, he was quite loud, but also pretty cogent, with his case that 'innovation is both an economic and a moral imperative', persuasively evidencing why ‘society wants us to invest in innovation’.
David Castle argued the need for better measures for the hard to analyse ‘knowledge intangibles’ held in people’s heads, hugely more important than tangibles, like patents. He posed the question: ‘Is investment in knowledge production a cost or an asset?’ Although most accountants cost R&D against profits, it can just as easily go on the other side of the ledger, he argued.
Joanna Chataway made the case for public-private partnerships as ways of improving the innovation process. She went beyond Ben Goldacre’s ‘bad pharma’ critique that pharma industries hide results and act unethically, to emphasise that ‘bad academe’ has also been uncovered. A recent Nature paper found that 47 out of 53 scientific results could not be reproduced. ‘Bringing the two together might improve both,’ she suggested.
Finally, Joyce Tait critiqued the penchant for public engagement to focus only on minutely anticipating every possible future impact of every small piece of potential technology, years in advance of any possible product. She urged instead the need for an adaptive approach – looking at ways to improve regulatory science so that it put ‘society at the core of regulation and governance, not special interest groups’. Bluntly, David Castle also added that we have an urgent need to get beyond exceptionalism – ‘treating every new science as if it were the atomic bomb’.
For more information about the presentation topics, read our Life Science Innovation Imperative brief.