“Confessions” of a Knowledge Transfer Manager dealing with Open Science

By Alessandra Baccigotti

Open Science, Open Access, Open Data, Open Source, Open Innovation, etc. These “Open-buzzwords” have been featured in EU policies related to research and innovation for a while now, but am I the only one to perceive a certain degree of confusion in their use – and mis-use – even among research managers and knowledge transfer professionals? And to feel a bit of tension between the “openness movement” and IPRs?

Trying to put some order among all the various concepts, I would say that Open Science, Open Access and Open Data go hand-in-hand and under the same umbrella. This is quite evident from the publication “Open Science, Open Innovation, Open to the world – a vision for Europe” by former Commissioner Carlos Moedas, which laid the foundation for the subsequent steps towards the promotion of a new approach to science based on collaboration, sharing and diffusion of knowledge using digital technologies, with Open Science becoming the modus operandi under the future Horizon Europe.

When I first heard about Open Access and Open Data, I was a little bit worried that these ideas would make our job, as tech transfer people, even more difficult. In fact, as technology transfer offices we are already quite busy trying to make our researchers aware that publishing and IPRs are not incompatible strategies and that before publishing their research results, it would be advisable to verify whether there are potential opportunities for commercial exploitation. So, I thought that promoting “openness” would reduce the possibilities for us to scout innovative ideas before they are put in the public domain. However, after diving into the world of Open Access and Open Data I felt relieved as the guidelines are crystal-clear: Open Access is not an obligation to publish; it applies only if a scientific publication is chosen as a means of dissemination of the research results and does not affect the decision to exploit such results commercially.

Open Source is something different, since it is a type of licence, which allows access to the software source code for further study, use, modification, and distribution (with generally a few restrictions), to enable the evolution and development of the software by creating a community of developers and users. The principle at the basis of this philosophy is that of sharing and collaborating, and this is maybe why, when it comes to software developed from research activities, this concept is linked back to overall concept of Open Science – something which we would not all agree with.

Now to Open Innovation. I initially wondered about the links between this concept and Open Science. I understood Open Innovation as a collaborative model for companies to develop innovations based both on internal and external resources; so mostly referring to the way businesses work, but indirectly involving universities to the extent that universities are “factories of knowledge.” But in “From Open Science to Open Innovation,” Chesbrough makes a clear point: “Open Innovation must help to connect and exploit the results of Open Science and facilitate the faster translation of discoveries into societal use and economic value.”

This was the moment when I finally gained some clarity on all these Open-buzzwords...

And now back to one of my original questions: is there a real friction between Openness and IPRs?

Years ago, when I had the opportunity to ask some Commission officers, they would reply that research results should be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary.” Nicely phrased but how to deal with this in practice?

I was glad to see that I was not the only one around Europe to have this kind of doubts. A few years ago a JRC workshop on Open Science and IPR came to the conclusion that “there are no incompatibilities between IPR and Open Science. On the contrary the IPR framework, if correctly defined from the onset, becomes an essential tool to regulate open science and ensure that the efforts from different contributors are correctly rewarded.”

It has been largely recognized that multiple and sometimes conflicting messages are directed at researchers and although there are no predefined incompatibilities between them, they do require different mindsets and skillsets from researchers and adequate support should be given to them throughout the research cycle, to “help them conciliate the goal of mass dissemination of knowledge and the ambition to transform technologies developed in the laboratory into products with potential social and economic impact.” Well, I believe this is quite a challenge not only for academics but also for us, research and technology transfer managers, and I wonder whether most of us are aware, trained and ready to provide academics with the needed support.

I had already started working on this note when I came across the recent EARTO Paper recommending to move “Towards a Balanced Approach Between IPRs and Open Science Policy” (so I got the final confirmation that I am definitely not the only one having concerns about these issues).

This is not just theory: the current pandemic situation and the increased R&D effort to develop solutions for Covid-19 has posed new challenges to universities (through technology transfer offices) striving to find a balance between the imperative need to make research results quickly and easily accessible, in the interests of public health and safety, and the need to ensure access to investments for early stage technologies, which would be impossible to achieve if no adequate IP protection is ensured before making knowledge and data publicly available. At my university, we had a big headache with some cases; one for example concerning a call for applications for Covid-related projects stipulating that all results and data would be immediately fed into an open and freely accessible database (without saying exactly when). This discouraged some researchers from submitting their projects for concerns that an early publication of the results would make them unattractive for further investments and jeopardize their potential to create an innovation. It is important to consider that research outcomes generally need additional investment (time, money, resources) to take innovation to market and these investments are unlikely when IPRs are not secured and ROI is compromised. Although there are many factors affecting innovation, such as people, market, regulatory barriers etc., having IP protection, i.e. a limited monopoly, may provide some interesting options to investors.

So, which conclusions come from this stream of consciousness about Open-buzzwords and IPRs? Well, I think there is a need to clarify the principles of EU policy for research and innovation, especially now, on the eve of the new Horizon Europe. Or perhaps the principles are already clearly explained in the policy papers but misconceptions are widespread and efforts should be made to raise awareness, not only among researchers and academics but also among research managers involved in EU projects, and knowledge transfer professionals, supporting the valorisation of the results coming out of those projects. There is more common ground than we generally think and if we want to make the EU research and innovation ecosystem work, we should all be aware that Open Science does not mean “free science” and that both Open Science and IPRs are necessary, beneficial and totally consistent.

The challenge is to support researchers in managing IPRs in order to deliver Open Science in an Open Innovation context – definitely easier said than done but worth trying!

Special thanks to Dr. Eugene Sweeney, Director of Iambic Innovation Ltd. https://iambicinnovation.com/, for the stimulating exchange of views and precious inputs and to Barbara Mila Novak for language check.

Published Sep. 10, 2020 8:30 AM - Last modified Oct. 12, 2020 4:45 PM