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June 2010


Director of the Fundación COTEC

The aims of scientific patronage

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Patronage offers economic support and protection to a creator, without demanding anything specific in return. Although historically this practice has tended to be associated with artistic creation, today it has broader goals, including the training of sportsmen and women, and of course, scientific research. Patrons trust their beneficiaries and allow them considerable freedom of action to follow wherever their creativity leads, free of other obligations. The goals accepted by the beneficiary and his or her total operational independence are the fundamental characteristics of this formula for funding human creative activity.

Juan Mulet

The goal of scientific patronage is the creation of knowledge through research. However, there are various types of knowledge that may have varying degrees of attractiveness to patrons. Lundvall and Foray suggested in 1996 that the knowledge arising from research activities could be of several types. In the terms they used it can be "know what," enabling us to determine facts, it can enable us to “know why” the facts occurred in a particular way, and also "know how" certain objectives can be achieved. The authors also identified another type of knowledge which is extremely important when faced with a process of technological change as continuous and profound as that which began at the start of the “Patrons trust their beneficiaries and allow them considerable freedom of action to follow wherever their creativity leads, free of other obligations”last century, namely that which allows you to "know who” is the expert and how to access and use what he or she knows. This type of knowledge is the fruit of the social skills of people who have one or more of the other types of knowledge described, and necessarily derives from research.

There are also various types of research. From the practical point of view the OECD’s Frascati Manual offers an interesting classification of research activity. It defines "pure basic research," which is driven by researchers’ interests, as research that basically tries to "know what" and "know why," but does not rule out “know-how,” if curiosity requires. These same types of knowledge are also sought by another type of basic research that the Manual classes as "oriented,” given that it is undertaken to produce knowledge that helps solve some or other economic or social problem. Historically, the first research was pure basic research, which meant that some of the knowledge it produced could go for years without any application and there may still be research for which no application has been found. But there is no doubt that many of us could list the contributions this research has made which have produced huge benefits for humanity. And it is also true that oriented basic research has failed on many occasions to offer the desired solutions. A lot has been written on these issues, but that is not the topic of this article.

The Frascati Manual defines another type of research which it calls “applied research.” This aims to produce technology, i.e. techniques or ways of doing useful things, which have been understood, improved or created based on scientific knowledge produced by pure or applied basic research. Applied research always aims to obtain something useful, although it can also lead to knowledge of “facts,” or the “why” and no doubt also sometimes to the “how.” For many years we believed that techniques came from knowledge generated by pure science, but nowadays, we are increasingly convinced that knowledge generated by human and social sciences can also produce its own "technologies."

Finally, the Frascati Manual recognises a third type of research, known as “experimental development.” Its aim is to create or improve products, services or processes, basically by applying technologies, but it also uses other types of knowledge. The key knowledge deriving from this activity is “know-how," if technology is used, without excluding the possibility of discovering "facts" and new explanations.

Given this wide range of possibilities, the questions of interest refer both to the type of research that can be attractive to patrons and what patrons can offer researchers.

The nature of patronage is such that the type of research best suited to it will be that driven by researchers' curiosity, i.e. that classed as “pure basic research,” for which there have always been many supporters. For example, the chemist and member of the Royal Society, Michael Polanyi, said in his 1962 article entitled “The Republic of Science: its Political and Economic Theory,” that “So long as each scientist keeps making the best contribution of which he is capable, and on which no one could improve [...] we may affirm that the pursuit of science by independent self-co-ordinated initiatives assures the most efficient possible organization of scientific progress. And we may add, again, that any authority which would undertake to direct the work of the scientist centrally would bring the progress of science virtually to a standstill.” Freedom of choice and the absence of outside direction are traits that patronage brings to research, which it should be recalled, has been a source of huge progress for humanity.

But without being as demanding as Polanyi, it is certain that the patronage formula will be able to stimulate ambitious projects which a bureaucracy, necessarily linked to public finance, would not allow researchers to undertake. It therefore plugs a gap that could otherwise be left empty, because today, business finance is basically devoted to experimental development and applied research, and there is still a degree of interest in "oriented basic research" aiming to resolve pressing commercial needs. Interestingly, business patronage may be a good source from which to obtain knowledge of the "know-who" type, which is ever more necessary in the global and competitive markets in which companies need to move. On the hand, patronage cannot solve the huge deficit in business R&D, because this activity needs to look for predefined objectives, in terms of both the tangible outputs and timescales, which will always run counter to the principles of free choice and operational independence that guide sponsorship.

In any event, sponsorship can have important consequences for societies, and for this reason governments in many countries, particularly the most developed ones, provide tax incentives that treat it appropriately. In some cases, perhaps the most successful ones, some or all of the money dedicated to scientific patronage may be deducted from tax obligations, which effectively gives patrons the option to decide on the final destination of that part of their tax.

Published in No. 01

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