The Point
Last updated: 10 March 2017.

...red sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Enriching Scotland’s Common Weal through Scottish inventions and innovations:

Why the pro-indy parties would do well to take up the policy of a Scottish Public Patenting Fund.

 

It’s taken almost as a given – and even by some opponents of Scottish independence - that our tiny nation of five million people has traditionally punched well above its weight in the scientific world and in the world of invention and innovation.

Historically we are the nation of James Clerk Maxwell – the giant of world physics upon whose shoulders Einstein himself stood; of James Watt, Alexander Fleming and John Logie Baird. In more recent times, the work of Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University in anticipating the Higgs boson drove world particle research and the building of the Large Hadron Collider. Dolly the Sheep – the world’s first cloned mammal – was a pioneering product of Ian Wilmut and his team at the Roslin Institute. Our gaming industry has had many pioneers and world leaders.

There are many other examples – and perhaps you can think of them. One thing is certain, in Scotland’s universities and research establishments, right now, new pioneering work is being done across whole ranges of fields that, in the future, could literally change the way we live and work, and potentially be multi-million pound earners for those who hold the patents.

It’s also the case that those same scientists working in pioneering fields often find it difficult to secure funding for their research, and have to look to private industry for that funding. In turn, private companies, particularly pharmaceutical and biomedical companies, will often expect a share of any patent, or even, in extreme cases, the whole patent to be registered in their name – thus enabling them to exploit it to the full financially and often against the interest of the majority of society. Ally that fact to the justified sense that Scots as a whole have not always benefitted fully from the research, innovations and inventions that our country is responsible for, and its not difficult to see a potential ‘gap in the market’ for a public patenting policy that can both increase and fund leading research AND ensure that Scotland as a nation benefits fully from any patents and discoveries that ensue.

The policy we would like to offer up to all of the pro-independence parties for consideration we call the Public Investment and Patenting System, and it calls for the setting up of a Scottish Public Patenting Fund by the Scottish Government which – as the name suggests – would be wholly publicly owned. Its straightforward aims would be as follows:

1)   To contribute to the Scottish Common Weal by funding or part funding leading research and development in leading and innovating scientific sectors in Scotland in return for patent rights or part patent rights on new products, processes and inventions that arise.

2)    To invest return from said patents in the Fund, with a view to both greater investment in Scottish R&D and theoretical scientific work, and to make an annual contribution from the fund to the Scottish Exchequer after costs once in profit

3)  To develop science and innovation in Scotland across all sectors as a matter of public policy

 

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier win US Breakthrough Prize in Science for discovery of the CRISPR gene editing technique. What scientific breakthroughs might come from Scotland in the next ten or twenty years, and how might thye benfit us directly?

 

Starting from a fairly small expenditure base, say, £10 million per annum for running costs and an initial annual investment fund of £30 million, the aim would be to build up a portfolio of research partners and publicly owned or partially publicly owned patents that over time would see net monetary value flow back into the fund, placing it into a permanent public surplus so that Scottish R&D essentially pays for itself, and the fund is able to take surpluses it generates and plough them back into the treasury of an independent Scotland to be used for education, health, roads, housing or whatever else the democratically elected Government of the day chooses to prioritise. (Perhaps, at some point in the future we could go mass participatory and have an annual digital vote on just what that surplus should be spent on!)

The fund should also have the option of agreeing the Salk route with research partners and scientists (after Jonas Salk, the polio vaccine pioneer who refused to patent the vaccine he invented and simply put it ‘out there’ for the public good). Such ‘Open Sourcing’ couldn’t be general and universal, of course, otherwise the purposes of the fund would not be met, but it should be an option in cases of widespread or immediate international need.

It would be good to have a feasibility study done on this by academics, who could both establish to what degree this can be achieved within the current or coming powers of the Scottish Parliament, and who could project potential fiscal gains from such a fund for the short, medium and longer terms. The Point – as a volunteer project – doesn’t have the funds to pay for that kind of academic research. But a future Scottish Government could if it wished to take up the policy.  

It would be necessary to make sure the right people were taken on – scientists, futurists, people with the Common Weal idea in their hearts and heads – to head up such a fund. We would need qualified science people with the right measures of boldness, caution and nous to ensure the people’s money was being invested wisely in research with long term potential benefits – and not wasted.

And we would need clear contractual guidelines that would reassure scientists, universities and researchers that there would be no academic interference from Government on ideological or political grounds in the scientific process; that the science would remain pure and peer reviewed.

But – if all those things can be done – we believe this policy is a potential winner that can both put our small nation firmly and permanently on the world map as a leading centre for scientific research AND ensure all of Scotland benefits financially in a direct sense from that research in the future. It is, of course, a policy for the medium to long term. Any fund takes time to build up. However, Scots are already familiar with the concept of an oil fund from the independence campaign, a policy The Point also wholeheartedly supports.

The Age of Oil is coming to an end over the next few decades (though hopefully not before an independent Scotland can get some real benefit from it). The Age of Science could just be about to become a Golden Age. Proper public investment now, with proper public returns could see Scotland benefit massively from a whole range of new inventions and discoveries, from biogenetics, to space research, to nanotechnologies, new medicines and treatments, new renewable energy technologies, new industrial processes and internet and social media innovations.

A Scottish Public Patenting Fund would be a significant but modest success if it broke even after the first five years, made modest profits in the next five, and then was able to contribute a few hundred million every year to the Scottish Treasury

- but in all honesty we think it could be so much bigger than that.

Considering the potential of our people and our scientific and learning institutions, and what might emerge from those people and institutions over the next five, ten or fifteen years, we believe a Scottish Public Patenting System and Fund could be a game changer; that in thirty years time it could conceivably match or dwarf the huge financial success of Norway’s Sovereign Oil Fund.

Politicians often don’t think very much about the future – at least not much further than the next budget or the next election. But we believe they should, and that this is an idea that can help the people of Scotland both create the future and benefit from the future.

SNP, Solidarity, Greens, Rise – and anyone else who may be listening – it’s over to you.

Steve Arnott

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books