IRELAND'S universities are not just suffering budget cuts as a result of the current economic downturn, they are facing mounting state pressure to team up with multinationals and commercialise the fruits of their research departments.
Last month, the government ordered Forfás to launch an urgent review into the exploitation of intellectual property (IP) rights borne out of publicly-funded research aimed at "maximising the benefit to the Irish economy" through the selling and licensing of state-developed technology.
The value of such technology is potentially enormous as demonstrated by the success of Irish software firm Havok, which started life as a Trinity College spin-out company before being bought by Intel for €76m in 2007.
The review, however, is likely to reawaken the debate surrounding the economic benefits of business involvement, particularly that of US multinationals, in university research projects. For some, such as the heads of the country's seven universities, teaming up with multinationals gives them the resources to conduct more complex research studies and test out the resulting technology in industrial applications.
But others, including many academics, fear that the current collaboration deals between businesses and universities are leaving the state funding too much of the research with too little of the resulting benefits. "The private sector is parasiting on the public sector on a massive scale, utilising infrastructure and skills built up in the public sector and creaming off what it can use at a cut price," said Professor Helena Sheehan, a lecturer at DCU.
Sheehan, a critic of DCU president Ferdinand von Prondzynski's commercialisation initiatives, fears the state may be spending more on industry-driven research than it will ever get back in revenues, pointing to the experience of some projects backed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).
These include the Crann project based at Trinity College Dublin, which conducts nanoscience research and is one of SFI's Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology Campus-Industry partnerships (CSets).
Although Crann's industry backers include Intel and Hewlett Packard, a value-for-money review into SFI published last year revealed that it received just €60,000 in funding from them between 2004 and 2007. By contrast, the state invested €28.8m in the centre during that time. Despite this exceptionally low level of expenditure, under SFI's guidelines, Crann's industry collaborators will have first refusal on the licencing of any technology that emerges from the centre.
According to Ruth Freeman, SFI's head of research-industry development, the raw figures masked the true extent of the companies' backing for Crann.
"CSets must receive 25% of their funding from industry but we do accept in-kind contributions. This is because SFI funds cutting-edge programmes where it can be easier for companies to offer facilities, equipment and staff time to the CSet [than cash]," she said.
Freeman admitted that some academics were nervous about this situation as well as the focus on licensing technology to multinationals rather than establishing indigenous businesses but said that SFI's approach was likely to maximise returns for the state.
"In reality, only some technologies are suitable for spin-out companies and we don't want to leave the remaining technology sitting on the shelf. So to support multinational jobs and manufacturing here, sometimes it makes sense to license," she said.
The growth of commercially-driven research at the state's universities can be clearly seen by the rise in the number of patents granted to them over the past five years.
In the past, universities rarely sought to protect their research findings, believing that they should be in the public domain to allow other academics to engage in further studies. For instance, up to 2005, Trinity College had only ever applied for about 50 patents while UCD had fewer than 100. But this situation has changed dramatically with the two universities securing about 80 patents between them in the past four years.
According to Paul Dillon, the chair of the Irish Universities Association's directors of technology transfer group, this trend has been driven by a number of government initiatives.
"These included the national patent fund, the commercialisation programme and the technology transfer strengthening initiative. The latter programme enabled the universities to recruit high-calibre staff and develop professional capabilities within their respective technology transfer offices (TTOs). The TTOs drive the commercialisation of university research developments but, according to Dillon, also play an important role in "ensuring that mutually beneficial arrangements are put in place [between companies and universities]."
While the universities believe that they are making significant progress with regards to commercialisation, the American Chamber of Commerce, which represents the bulk of the multinationals operating here, believes that more needs to be done.
Mike Devane, the chamber's R&D group chairman, said its members were particularly keen to form alliances with small Irish start-ups to "bring their work to the global marketplace" but that some obstacles remained.
"Funding for third-level research is an issue," he said. "Equally important is putting in place the wider supports which are needed by any new start-up companies." The chambers' wishes look likely to be further fulfilled in the wake of the current review process, which most observers expect to recommend additional supports for commercialisation.
For instance, SFI and Enterprise Ireland are about to start recruiting commercialisation managers from industry to drive the exploitation of developments from the country's CSets.
Regardless of the review's findings, however, doubts about the real economic value of commercialisation are unlikely to be satisfied until firms start ploughing significant sums of cash into their collaborations with the state's universities.