Connecting the dots: IPRs, Knowledge Transfer, Innovation and Open Science

By Alessandra Baccigotti

Two important events have taken place recently, just a few days away.

On 23rd April UNESCO hosted a Meeting on Open Science and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), where I had the honor to be invited as expert, to discuss the relationships between IPRs and Open Science, in the framework of the UNESCO Recommendations on Open Science.

From 27th to 30th April the European Commission organized the first EU Knowledge Valorisation Week, to showcase examples of strategies and tools to boost the uptake of research results from across Europe for the recovery and the green and digital transitions. One of the sessions was named “Mission possible: Smart use of intellectual property” and presented successful examples of IP valorization in the context of universities and public research organizations.

The discussions at those events provided some food for thought.

At the UNESCO meeting I was asked what are the connections between Open Science, Innovation, Knowledge Transfer and IPRs, particularly in the context of publicly funded research institutions. My experience shows that, generally speaking, a tension is perceived between Open Science and IPR/Technology Transfer and most researchers find it difficult to juggle them. Because in fact universities are requested to do both: to make scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone but at the same time to be more entrepreneurial and contribute to innovation and economic growth, the latter being strictly related to managing IPRs.

The debate about Open Science and IPR tends to focus on one type of IPRs, which is copyright, and in particular the right of scientists to their publications. As this is an area that traditionally falls within the researchers’ autonomy, a cultural shift is being promoted to make sure that scientists retain the economic rights they need to comply with open access obligations and that open licenses are widely used.

There are, however, other types of IPRs which raise different challenges, such as for example patents, that are usually filed by universities to protect technologies, in order to promote their commercialization and deliver innovation. In this respect my impression is that Open Science and IPRs are going at two different speeds: in the past few years there has been an acceleration in the Open Science movement, starting with Open Access and now gradually expanding to all other pillars of Open Science, whereas in universities the culture for IPR, knowledge transfer and innovation has not progressed as much.

Scientists are still very much focused on projects that allow them to acquire funding for research activities, which would result in scientific publications, which would, in turn, advance their academic career. Scientific publications remain the priority and, as we know, this often conflicts with IPRs, for example in the case of prior disclosure of possible patentable inventions. The ‘third mission’, and its original nucleus – technology transfer - are still very much a responsibility of the institutions rather than of the individual researchers. For example, in the current assessment of the VQR, the Italian version of the UK Research Excellence Framework, third mission activities will be evaluated through case studies which are presented at the university or department levels. This means that researchers can very easily do without IPRs, technology transfer and innovation.

In other words, the Open Science movement is strongly emerging in a context where there is still limited awareness of the role that IPRs play in valorizing research results and on how intellectual property is used.

Every time I happen to attend an event on Open Science, you can always feel some degree of skepticism when it comes to IPRs. This is because many researchers are not aware that universities make indeed a smart use of IP, as we have also seen at the EU Knowledge Valorisation week. According to law, IPRs are exclusivity rights but universities do not file patent applications for the purpose of excluding and not sharing; they do it to increase the value of early stage technologies that require investments, sometimes huge investments, in order to become a new product or service on the market. Without a monopoly right that facilitates a competitive advantage and a return on the investment, many technologies would never reach the market or bring benefit to society because no company or investor would have incentives to put money on their development.

At the political level an effort is being made to promote a common understanding of what Open Science is and means, and both the UNESCO Recommendations and the various EC documents move in this direction. However, more emphasis should be put in clarifying that (and how) an Open Science approach can happily co-exist with an innovation-based approach, which makes the best use of IP generated within academic research.

A novelty of the new Horizon Europe is that Open Science practices will be evaluated at proposal stage and throughout the project lifetime. If this change does not induce extra burden on researchers and does not impose in a top-down manner a one-size-fit-all model of open science (overlooking differences between academic disciplines, countries and universities), it will certainly contribute to reinforcing the culture for early and open sharing of research results, open access, open data etc.

IPR management and exploitation have been evaluated at the proposal stage and in the reporting for many Framework Programmes, but we still struggle in translating research results of EU-funded projects into innovation, where appropriate, in particular in projects with higher innovation potential. In this regard I wonder whether the evaluators’ panels include the competences needed to assess these aspects, in addition to science. The EIC deserves, of course, a separate discussion as the whole Pillar III is strongly focused on innovation-related aspects.

There is an undeniable complexity in balancing and managing all of the above. However, if we are not good at “connecting the dots” and if we do not build capacity in untangling the concepts of Open Science, Innovation, and IPRs, it will be very difficult to put into practice the principle of “as open as possible, as closed as necessary”.

Published May 11, 2021 12:19 PM - Last modified May 11, 2021 12:19 PM