Thursday, 28 April 2011

Sharing the gains of research: public costs vs. private profits

The rewards from research are basically unpredictable. A researcher may spend his entire life tackling a problem without finding a solution or he may find a solution in a matter of minutes. Equally, society may value instantly a discovery or it may take centuries before finding a profitable use for such discovery. This raises some fundamental questions on how to ensure a fair sharing of the rewards of scientific endeavors.

Let us use the tale of four friends who began their research careers at the same time and retired on the same day. Researcher A, B, and C worked in a public sector University while researcher D worked in a private sector company. By sheer chance, on the first week after retirement, researchers A and D came up with a discovery they had pursued their entire life and that can be immediately sold for 100 million each. Researchers B and C did not make any money-making discoveries but had significantly different careers. Researcher B was a hard working researcher like researcher A, while researcher C enjoyed an easy life and devoted himself to academic politics that frequently were hostile and obstructive in relation to the work of researchers A and B.

The first question to reflect is on whether researchers A and D should keep the 200 million or should payback some of the money to their former employers. Since their employers financed the freedom they enjoyed to conduct research during their entire career, it seems fair that they should share the gain with their former employers. Note that this applies regardless of how much their employers spent on their research projects. Indeed, researcher D is most likely to have some claw back clause in his contract with his former private sector employer that will force him to return 70% or more of his gain to his former company. However, in many government institutions researcher A would get away with keeping his full gain. This would be a typical case of socializing the costs and privatizing the gains from research and most of us would consider it as an unfair greedy behavior.

But let us judge the fairness of the situation from the point of view of the researchers. Research is a rather individual process, and therefore its results are largely perceived as an individual achievement. Moreover, in some fields, like literature, employers do not support any costs beyond the researchers’ salaries. While other institutions make the life of their researchers a hell. So from the individual researchers’ point of view it seems extremely unfair that those who contributed nothing to their money jackpot now want to keep a large share of the gain. For instance, researcher A would not mind sharing the money with his university provided that it would be used to finance the careers of future researchers like his colleague B, but he will feel defrauded if the money is to be used to pay for the University’s bureaucracy and to finance researchers like his colleague C.

So we may conclude that there is no single standard to judge the fairness of the distribution of the gains from research. Only a balanced view of the interests of the researchers and their institutions will be conducive to a solution that can be judged fair on unequivocal moral grounds.

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