The Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane, has proven again why we need a dedicated Science Minister: he doesn't understand how science works. He recently gave a speech in which he argued that scientific grants should be based on number of patents awarded, because in his view this will create jobs. This demonstrates a failure to grasp two critical concepts: the difference between scientific research and patentable inventions, and the reason why we fund science using taxes.
Scientific research is quite different to technological research, despite being intimately related. In particular, only inventions are patentable; discoveries are not. When we think of great scientists, we generally think of Einstein first. Einstein's theories were not patentable, because they were discoveries of the natural universe, explored using novel mathematical ideas. None of these count as inventions for the purposes of patent law.
Einstein didn't patent his discoveries, but it wasn’t due ignorance on his part. Einstein worked in a patent office; he knew exactly what was and was not patentable. His General Theory of Relativity allows us to have GPS on all our phones. Understanding photons, the particles of light he described first in his photoelectric effect paper, has enabled technologies from chemical analysis to solar panels to fibre optics. There are so many ways in which Einstein’s scientific discoveries have led to such incredible progress - our society would be unrecognizable today without them.
Basing grants to researchers on patents they hold means little to no money for fundamental mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and countless other fields where the discoveries cannot be patented - even though they are critical to the subsequent development of patentable technologies.
Indeed, inventions that are patentable are exactly the type of innovation that doesn't especially need government subsidy. Research that leads directly to a commercially viable patent can be, and largely is, funded by private investors seeking to make a profit. This is precisely why patents exist. Government intervention in this market may in some cases even do more harm than good, forcing would be innovators out of business because of the competition from loss making, government backed institutions. In contrast, basic research has long been recognised to be a public good - that is, an economic activity which benefits all but can’t be profited from, and thus, something that governments ought to subsidise.
While there are fair criticisms to be made of the 'publish or perish' system of awarding grants, Ian Macfarlane has taken them to a ridiculous extreme. In fact, both scientific publishing and patent applications are prone to similar kinds of excess. Academia is plagued by the "Minimum Publishable Unit" of excessive publication of minor or inconsequential research, but modern patents are similarly troubled by excessive applications for obvious inventions, and the activities of so called “patent trolls”. Additionally, patent applications are expensive due to the legal costs involved, and basing scientific funding on patents will divert funding from research to legal costs. The suggestion that number of patents awarded indicate the value of research performed is ridiculous; indeed, that market value of patents varies hugely.
While Mr Macfarlane might be good enough as Industry Minister, he shouldn’t be left in charge of anything to do with research. For the sake of our future, Australia needs a dedicated Science Minister - someone who can advocate for science, who understands science, and who cares about science.