Written Evidence Submitted by Chris Loryman
- Research reproducibility is a serious issue, but universities and academics are organized in ways that can generate resistance to external influences. Changing academic practices to improve reproducibility is therefore a challenge, and asymmetric strategies have the potential to yield outcomes that might not otherwise be achieved.
- Observed results in the United States indicate that increasing the flow of scientific and technical output from research-intensive universities into commercial entities, especially newly-formed companies, may improve the quality and reproducibility of ongoing research.
- Without any additional spending, and with minimal changes to existing practices, there can be new economic activity that also creates a direct connection between the laboratories of senior researchers to the forces of commercial scrutiny. Therefore, increased university research commercialization may provide scrutiny that stimulates an improvement in the quality and reproducibility of scientific research being performed across each institution.
What are the issues in academia that have led to the reproducibility crisis?
- You will hear many times that there is enormous pressure to publish, and yet conversely there is minimal pressure around post-publication scrutiny. A future publication that disputes a prior publication often has the external appearance of simple ‘robust academic debate’. In practical terms, the worst an academic might face is close questioning during a scientific conference. More importantly, senior academics have protections around their employment (protections which will hereafter be referred to as ‘tenure’), and are therefore insulated by their institutions against a wide range of pressures.
What policies or schemes could have a positive impact on academia’s approach to reproducible research?
- One novel proposal is to increase university commercialization activity, thus leveraging commercial pressure and market forces to improve reproducibility. Commercializing research output from universities is a fundamental good. Public investment in research is transformed into an investable asset that can (A) in the short-term employ people and draw in domestic and foreign investment, and (B) in the long-term produce useful goods and services, while generating economic growth and global strategic influence.
- Some have observed that in research-intensive universities, increasing commercialization activity (particularly the starting of new companies based around new technologies) increases the quality of ongoing research. For example, increasing licensing activity and new company formation may result in a subsequent increase in research funding. (Why is it not the other way round, with commercialization activity a product of the increasing funding? Because research funding takes years to become patents etc which can then be licensed. So an increase in funding may lead to more licenses many years in the future, but current licensing activity is by definition a product of research funding received and used many years in the past.) Increases in research funding are, at the ‘macro’ level, suggestive of ‘higher than average’ research reproducibility, but there is additional, more tangible, evidence of the link between an increase in commercialization and reproducibility.
- Commercializing research can involve venture financing, and venture capital firms (“VCs”) employ those who are ‘amongst the best and brightest’ (often PhD/MBA’s) who are domain-specific subject matter experts. These VCs certainly scrutinize the commercial rationale of a technology, but they can also (A) identify areas of concern around reproducibility, and (B) if needed, oversee scrutiny of the science in a third-party laboratory before any (substantial) investment is made. Some might argue that perhaps it is ‘good’ science that gets licensed and formed into new companies, thus potentially disregarding the unreproducible science. This is where, I would argue, commercial pressure and local market forces apply to increase reproducibility across a broad range of university-based research activity.
- Senior faculty have ‘tenure’, and can therefore resist external pressure, but they are not immune to local community influences. If a colleague achieves substantial financial success from a start-up, awareness and discussion will be stimulated within the local research community. Other faculty will desire this success (and more importantly, stature) and they will know that it came from, for example, the acquisition of a company that was based on the faculty’s research. The commercial success of (by definition reproducible) research stimulates others within the local research community to desire an equivalent outcome. This is based on personal motivations, but also the knowledge that, if their science is not reproducible, one potential outcome is that the company rapidly folds (possibly with some tumult). Such an outcome may stimulate negative discussions within the local research community, and also create disappointment for the person who came so close to the rewards and stature of successful commercialization, only to see it slip away because their ‘promising’ research could not be reproduced. This creates internal pressure to improve research quality and reproducibility.
- In addition, before a florid commercial event like an acquisition (which is rare and typically years in the making), there are more immediate direct benefits for faculty from their commercialization activities. New companies often provide direct funding to the inventor’s laboratory, income that is quick-to-obtain and without the bureaucracy of governmental grants. Also, involvement in scientific advisory committees provides access to new information (both internally from the expertise of the VCs, and also externally from things like regulatory submissions), all of which is arguably more valuable to an academic than money. But all of this only happens if the investors in the new company see reproducibility in the science.
- Importantly, none of this needs a penny more in government expenditure. Indeed, the necessary changes are substantially uncontroversial. Few would object to a PhD candidate being encouraged to form a new company around the invention contained within their thesis, and to thereafter seek significant venture financing. In so doing, the nation can potentially benefit from economic activity that would have never happened otherwise, but there is also a newly-created direct connection between the laboratory of a senior researcher and the forces of commercial scrutiny.
- In summary, I contend, increased university research commercialization stimulates an improvement in the quality and reproducibility of scientific research being performed across each institution.
Disclaimer: This submission is made in a private capacity, and does not necessarily represent the views of my current, or any former, employer. This submission has not previously been published.
Biography Chris Loryman: I am currently Senior Manager in University of California San Diego’s Office of Innovation & Commercialization. I have previously worked at UCL Business PLC, and managed intellectual property and technology commercialization for Birkbeck College (University of London) and City University, London. In my career I have managed over eight thousand university-created technologies, and I have completed more than one hundred commercial licenses (excluding options etc). I have initiated more than twenty companies to develop university-derived technologies, and in the last five years’ companies that I have started or oversee have raised in excess of one billion Dollars in venture financing.