Viewpoint: How the R&D world has changed in 1,000 issues of Science|Business

01 Feb 2022 | Viewpoint

Money, globalisation, entrepreneurship: some of the ways we have seen the research community evolving since the 2005 start of publication

Today marks the thousandth edition of the Science|Business newsletter. We began publishing on 13 October 2005: a small band of science and technology journalists with an obsessive interest in how governments and companies spend their R&D money.

Now, 16 years, 10 million-plus words and a few hundred conferences later, our mission remains unchanged: to help our online readers and institutional members get the information and contacts they need to make cross-border, cross-sector R&D easier. And along the way, we want to make science and technology work better for society.

But I want to consider for a moment how much has changed in our world of R&D policy and investment since we began publishing – change in money, cooperation and enterprise.

  1. The rise of science money

When we were raising capital in 2003-4 for the company to start, I got an appointment with the CFO of an international media conglomerate. After being ushered into his vast skyscraper office in New York, I started my funding pitch. Within a few minutes he cut me off: “Scientists have no money. Forget it.”

How times have changed. In the past 16 years, R&D has grown and grown in funding and economic importance. A standard measure is the percentage of GDP that public and private R&D budgets amount to. For the developed countries, the share has risen from 2.11% to 2.48% - past $2 trillion globally. That average masks some dramatic national stories: China and Korea rocketing ahead, the US and EU advancing at a more stately pace, and a few outliers like Canada sagging. We have seen the EU’s Framework Programmes rise six-fold, from a bit more than €2 billion a year. We have seen the forms of support vary, with the UK pumping research tax breaks to industry, the US leveraging its gargantuan defence budget for breakthrough technologies (Internet, semiconductors, AI, aviation), and the EU organising elaborate collaborative schemes mixing grants, debt and equity.

But while there’s more money than ever before, is it spent wisely? As we saw last year with Horizon Europe’s budget debates, R&D lags far behind other political priorities like agriculture and regional development. And funding mechanisms vary by political whim: “missions” trendy now, “impact” or “multidisciplinary” popular another time. Could we do better by applying the mounting pile of research on R&D policy to R&D policy-making? What about gathering all the research by the OECD and others to develop and publish evidence-based, internationally peer-reviewed, R&D “shadow budgets” for every major country? Could we get them taken up by opposition, if not governing, parties – and eventually see their way into real budgets? R&D funding + reason: what a novel idea.

  1. The global research endeavour

When we started publishing, the audience genuinely interested in cross-border R&D was painfully small. At one French multinational I visited, the CTO patiently explained that they had all the research partners they needed already, and so didn’t see the point in joining us. Where are these partners? I asked. In France, of course.

Again, big changes. Today, about 30% of all published research articles in the natural sciences and engineering are internationally co-authored. In 2019, despite the hostile politics, the US and China had more research partnerships with each other than with any other country. Of course, industry still lags academia in the internationalism of research. But the COVID-19 vaccine story demonstrates how crises and opportunities can break through barriers to global cooperation. There is, however, a disturbing counter-trend in the calls for “strategic autonomy” in EU capitals, limiting foreign research collaborators in some areas like quantum computing deemed too sensitive. We’ve seen this game before, in the 1980s, when EU governments tried to limit the involvement of non-EU companies in semiconductor R&D. Today, there are no major EU chip manufacturers left, except in niche markets.

To resolve this, we could start by eliminating practical, if not yet ideological, barriers to cross-border cooperation. One such barrier is uncertainty over who has rights to the fruits of collaborative R&D. The EU’s Horizon Europe grant contracts make that fairly clear. But elsewhere, when it comes to later-stage technology development and diffusion, the assignment of ownership internationally gets much fuzzier. A group of research leaders is currently pushing the G7 to draft templates for this kind of work. An even better approach would be to get the world’s leading R&D nations together in creating global, precompetitive research programmes that are fully funded and internationally managed. Again, Horizon Europe provides a good template. But there are other ideas, too: one Washington researcher recently proposed a TARPA – Transatlantic Advanced Research Projects Agency – linking Europe and the US in funding breakthrough research.

  1. The university as enterprise

As the first issue of Science|Business shows, university spin-outs mattered in 2005 – and they matter even more today. As a young American tech journalist in the 1980s in Europe, one of my first reporting trips took me to Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology.  At the time, it had spun out a grand total of 26 tech companies – more than any other university in Europe. Now, its venture arm has worked with more than 600 start-ups. And the story is the same through much of the developed world. The culture of universities since 2005 has changed profoundly, with widespread adoption of a third academic mission (enterprise, in addition to teaching and research). This way was already well-trodden in the US (Google, Intel, Moderna). In Europe, the fruits include Spotify, BioNTech, Skype and more.

So today there is no shortage of researchers wanting to test their ideas in the marketplace. The problem is money to fund them, and markets to grow them. Government funding, I believe, is necessary but not sufficient. As we at Science|Business have learned to our pain, the realities of the marketplace look nothing like those anticipated in a grant proposal. Instead, Europe must solve its fundamental problem of capital formation. What’s needed are tax policies that encourage risky, private investment, and the elimination of barriers to cross-border trade and investment. And the current divisions within Europe – Brexit, EU-Swiss conflict – make it that much harder.

When we started Science|Business, we knew we were embarking on uncharted waters.

The three friends who incorporated the company – me, Pete Wrobel and Malcolm Laws (now, alas, deceased) – were journalists who understood how quickly science and technology changes, and how important money and policy are to its development. We tried several ideas: our first pilot issue was a print magazine in 2004, but it became clear that fast (and inexpensive) online publishing would work best. We tried out scores of titles – “Lab to Market” was one possibility - but thankfully ended up with Science|Business as the quickest way to express the linkage between money and science. The computer programmers among you will recognise the line, or “pipe”, down the middle of the name, as a command linking the input of the first word to the output of the second. (And lawyers take note: the name is trademarked.)

We are especially grateful to those who have stayed with the journey from the very beginning – our managing editor Nuala Moran, our editor at large Mike Kenward, our long-suffering investors, our longer-suffering families, and those few organisations that bought our pitch from the start and stuck with us to this day: Microsoft, Imperial College London, University College London, Karolinska Institutet, ETH-Zurich and the Politecnico di Milano. And we wish to thank those now leading our work, including CEO Maryline Fiaschi, Network Director Simon Pickard, and Chairman Carlos Härtel.

In 2021, we had more than 1.6 million Website visitors, 30+ events, and 70 member-organisations from Vancouver to Tokyo. Building on this, we have growth plans for both east and west (stay tuned.) And above all, we look forward to the next 1,000 issues.

Over this anniversary month, we will publish further articles reflecting on the R&D world’s past and present, and reprise some of own favourite articles and reports. And as we look forward to the future, you’re welcome to see our newest reports, and to join us online for any of the sessions at our annual Science|Business Network conference, February 8 and 9.

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