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Willetts looks to call time on university spinout culture

Science and universities minister David Willetts has said there’s been “too much of a preoccupation” with university spinout companies in the UK, arguing there are lots of other ways to benefit from ideas in the lab.

Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference on 1 October, organised by a group of the UK’s learned societies, Willetts said: “We probably had too many universities putting too much emphasis into exactly what the IP is and exactly what the relation is of the equity belonging to the university and the individual researcher…And I personally think universities have to be a bit more relaxed and a bit more open about the IP belonging to their researchers and going out to the wider world.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States reportedly makes more money from the sale of MIT T-shirts than from its patents, WIlletts said. He also praised the “moral understanding” between the institution and its researchers, saying it was common for scientists who end up making lots of money from their ideas to give significant funds back to the university.

At the same event, Willetts was challenged on whether research funding was becoming increasingly politicised. “Blue skies research should be undertaken largely independent from political and commercial interests,” said Rachel Griffith, deputy research director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who was also on the panel. “So it’s important that the way that research money is allocated shouldn’t place too much emphasis on short-term objectives. And I think there are some concerns that we’re heading in that direction.“

But Willetts responded that, while he agreed about the importance of blue sky research, he was “not aware of having taken any decision that would constrain the ability of scientists just to follow the subjects that interest them”.

Willetts also spoke about the importance of researchers’ absorptive capacity, arguing that this is a crucial asset to the UK. “However good you are…you are only going to make a small proportion of the world’s scientific discoveries,” he told the meeting. “But you really need smart, cutting-edge scientists so that you can reap the benefits of the many ideas emerging elsewhere in the world.

When asked by Research Fortnight whether he thought the Liberal Democrats’ aim for a 15-year annual increase to the science budget of 3 per cent above inflation was a realistic plan that he could support, Willetts declined to give a clear answer.

“We are in the same government, in fact we’re all facing the same fiscal constraints…as the science minister of course I understand the importance of public spending on science,” he said. “Obviously one hopes that as the situation improves we can do even more. And my experience in dealing with George Osborne…is that George completely gets these things."

The fringe event Can Research and Innovation Fuel the UK Economy? was organised by the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences.