Wetenschap - 1 januari 1970

Public-private partnerships are not effective

Public-private partnerships are not effective

Public-private partnerships are not effective

Dr Marek Kierstan of the British company Leatherhead International Ltd was asked to give his view on public-private partnerships, to improve the knowledge transfer to the agricultural and food industry, during the congress Towards an Agenda for Agricultural Research in Europe last week. His experience turned out differently than the organisers had expected


I have been asked to speak to you on research funding, and specially on the public-private partnerships or link. The organisers of this conference were of a view that Leatherhead was a good example of a partnership. Regrettably I have to disillusion you and them in this view. Although Leatherhead may have started as a public-private partnership some 80 years ago, it has not been so for the last 30 years. And my key message is that a public-private link will only be really effective when it is truly private and commercial

Leatherhead was founded in 1919 as a collaborate industrial R&D facility. It has always been industry managed, however the UK Government stimulated its establishment and development by providing matching funds to those raised by industry. Some thirty years ago this arrangement was phased out. Leatherhead is now a self-financing provider of technical service to the food industry worldwide. Although it provides technological solutions, develops products and processes, provides services and makes substantial investments in technical facilities, the majority of its activities would not be recognised as academic research but more as consultancy work

Our mechanism is to identify technology, to adapt it and then to apply it. We like to start with the market and commercial needs and to work back from these to technology. And we also aim to make sure that the titles of our research themes can be recognised and understood by all, not just by technologists

In biological terms this would be something akin to a parasitic or symbiotic partnership. Through our activities and despite the fact that we are a private sector organisation, along with other independent research and technology organisations, we act as links. That is because we earn our living through bringing the public and private sectors together, or rather by exploiting the commercial benefit of basic research carried out worldwide. Rarely, if ever, do public sector research institutes and universities even bother to ask us for our market analysis of technology needs. This is why I say our activities are parasitic though they could and should be symbiotic

I believe that the food industry can drive little commercial benefit from basic research. The first piece of evidence is the supermarket shelf. Europe has a full stomach. Nevertheless, year after year thousands of new products are launched. However among these new products there is little if no evidence of quantum leaps in technology: there appears to be no technology push. If we look at genetically modified foods or irradiation, these are in fact rejected by the consumer in Europe

The fact that technology is not pivotal to the food industry is also illustrated by academic studies. Our own studies show that real R&D expenditure in food companies is decreasing, though technology support needs remain and sometimes grow. However, company PR statements often group these activities, of scientific support services and research together and therefore hide the underlying trend of decreasing R&D spending

Nevertheless, I believe that basic research has and still can have a great impact on the agricultural industry. This is for two reasons. Firstly, much of agriculture is based on large-scale commodity operations which provide opportunities for large financial impact. Secondly, legislation and politics can radically influence this marketplace and its commercial operation

In order to capitalise on opportunities, provided by the large amount of public funded basic research, transfer/link organisations are needed. I believe that structures that are dependent solely on market forces are the ones that provide the best links. I am biased in this view. However, I believe that all you have to do is to look at the world-wide growth of organisations such as Leatherhead and compare these with the recent performance of other types of organisations to see the sense of my proposition

Any structure or organisation, which is dependent even in part on public funds does not, I believe, have the right stimulus to survive by transferring technology and making the link work. We have to make the link work to survive, prosper and to keep our jobs. These are powerful motivators

So the question you have to ask yourself is: do you need a Leatherhead type of organisation for the agricultural industry. This can, of course, be achieved by privatisation of an existing institute but it would be better achieved by the industry initially funding its own organisation as happened with us many decades ago

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