Govt Needs to Stop Torpedoing PPPs

Photo credit: iStockphoto/S_Bachstroem

Amid the turmoil going on in the U.S., the launch of the SpaceX NASA Mission over the weekend was not only a technological triumph but a flagship model for the potential of private-public partnerships (PPPs).

Previously, all U.S. space missions were undertaken by NASA, a publicly funded organization.

In recent years many private organizations have moved into the space industry, but the latest mission is significant because it is a collaboration between publicly funded NASA and privately held SpaceX. Together, they are forging a fascinating new chapter in the story of space exploration.

This might be the most high profile example of a PPP in technology, but it is not the only one.

Rebooting PPP

The COVID-19 disruptions seem a suitable moment to show that this model still holds great promise and should be taken more seriously, particularly by governments which have continued to run down publicly funded scientific organizations and research.

Just as this pandemic saw a resurgence in older style fiscal policy to protect market economies from damage, so the idea of Government involvement in science and research is worth reconsidering and deserving of a reboot.

Many of the research projects to find a vaccine for COVID-19 combine the work of publicly funded universities and private biotech and pharma firms. When one of them, as the odds suggests, finds a vaccine this will represent another PPP triumph.

Here in Australia, the primary science organization is the CSIRO, the acronym for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation founded in 1916.

The CSIRO’s roll call of achievements is significant. There was the invention of atomic absorption spectroscopy used to develop Wi-Fi technology, the creation of the first polymer banknote, and the invention of Aerogard insect repellent. The CSIRO was also involved in beaming the first moon landing to people around the world.

In 2020, however, the CSIRO is a diminished organization. In 2014, the former Abbott Government cut AUD110 million from the science budget which saw staff levels at the CSIRO fall from 6,500 down to 5,100.

One of the key areas for attack has been climate science, with around 100 scientists culled from this division by a Government which has attracted world attention for its denialist policies and lack of climate action.

IP for public good

Beyond the sometimes-disputed area of climate science, there is a powerful point to be made that a strong CSIRO is good for private business, and ultimately great for technology advances on many areas.

This is because the CSIRO has a strong track record of creating world leading intellectual property and then successfully commercializing it.

CSIRO’s Data61 data science spin off is partnering with a wide range of private organizations and institutions to develop next generation AI applications.

It was involved in a RegTech pilot with leading bank Westpac for example, and since 2006 companies which originated from within Data61 have raised over AUD 150 million in capital. Some of these include machine learning company ambiata, audio systems provider Audinate, and ‘bionic eye’ developer Bionic Vision.

The CSIRO itself has done this consistently. The big one was Radiata, spun out of the organization to commercialize Wi-Fi technology. This proved to be quite controversial, with major kickbacks from big U.S. technology companies, but ultimately Radiata was sold to Cisco for AUD 550 million in 2000.

There is a wealth of smaller, recent case studies. Titomic, for example, was created in 2014 with exclusive rights to commercialize the CSIRO’s patented process to develop next generation titanium.

Shifting roles of public science orgs

The point of detailing some of these stories is to underline the major impact a small-ish publicly funded science organization can have if it is plugged into the universities and to industry.

Just as many people are re-thinking the role of Government in many areas of the economy in the wake of COVID-19, so this is an appropriate time to reconsider if government policy to starve publicly funded science is the wise thing to do.

At this moment the CSIRO is undergoing pre-clinical trials for two candidates for potential COVID-19 vaccines. Many other organizations and institutions around the world are doing the same, but the CSIRO has a track record which suggests it stands a good chance of success.

If it succeeds, that won’t only be a scientific triumph, but will deliver a financial bonanza and play a major part in helping the world economy recover.

Scientists and business people around the world already know about the benefits of collaborating, as this model has been a proven winner many times over.

The problem is that in their zeal to slash and burn and privatize in the short term, Governments have forgotten about all this.

It's time they remembered and make a commitment to publicly funded research for the long-term benefit of everyone.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/S_Bachstroem