The Sunday Times reports that “Researchers at the new £61m National Graphene Institute are refusing to work amid fears about the security of their ideas” in an article headlined “Academics in revolt as China reaps benefits of British breakthrough”
The article alleges some ill conceived deals and potential conflicts of interest, but perhaps the idea was ill conceived in the first place? It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that building a National Graphene Institute would boost academic research in the UK and there is little doubt that it will. Unfortunately in many of these flagship projects there is no clear division between the research and the development phases of commercialisation. This means that a distinguished academic who may be a brilliant scientist or have a superb pedigree in managing research suddenly gets put in charge of commercialising technology. That is like putting the Governor of the Bank of England in charge of an academic research group.
It is difficult to find any example of a University successfully commercialising a technology, and in fact tech transfer departments with over inflated expectations often hinder the commercialisation process by getting in the way of people who actually understand how to take science based innovations to market. This habit of putting academics in charge of commercialisation, or even worse, hiring world class business development people and then overruling them, has messed up similar UK initiatives in nanotechnology and printed electronics. Somebody, somewhere, should have noticed that chucking money at high profile centres of excellence for technologies with no clear commercial applications is always a disaster.
Mixing private companies with academics rarely works, and any problems at the National Graphene Institute can and should be easily fixed by simply separating the ‘R’ from the ‘D.’
PS the journalist covering this story at the Sunday Times is Tom Harper and he is neither a relative nor a typo.