AFBI’s incentive scheme for scientific innovation ‘does not sit well’ with Stormont’s PAC

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Small matter, but it is worth noting. Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee found an interesting detail in the relevant NIAO report that, it should be said did not particularly feature in the Audit Office report as a genuine matter of concern.

The subject organisation is the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI) at New Forge in Belfast, and as the BBC notes

…the institute’s coffers had been boosted by £20m plus of income from royalties from patents filed on scientific discoveries from its predecessor organisation, the Science Service.

But the Pac said it was “extremely concerned” to discover that seven current or former employees had received “very significant shares” of the royalties.

“The principal of paid public sector employees receiving further substantial reward simply for discharging their duties does not sit well with the committee,” the report stated. [emphasis added]

Here’s the relevant passage from the committee’s own report:

“The Committee is also extremely concerned to learn that 7 employees (or former employees) have been paid very significant amounts from these royalties. The principle of remunerated public sector employees receiving further substantial reward simply for discharging their duties does not sit well with the Committee.

However, the Committee recognises that current legislation requires an employer to agree some form of scheme which provides employees with a “fair share” of commercial benefits derived from intellectual property which they have developed. The Committee also acknowledges that, prior to making any payments to staff, AFBI and DARD sought two sets of professional legal advice and obtained DFP approval.

The Committee demands all public bodies to exercise utmost scrutiny over claims from employees for shares in intellectual property, and to ensure that the best deal possible is obtained for the public purse. The Committee understands that one claim from a member of AFBI staff remains outstanding, and demands that the Department reports the final outcome from this case to it.” (paras 19-20, p. 9)

[Perhaps the Committee should be looking at those fines DARD keep on paying out to the EU each year? - Ed]

Yes, well. In fact its a bit of a puzzle as to how this element made it into the PAC’s final report, not least since these queries were raised and answered pretty well in the committee’s own investigation:

116. Mr Gerry Lavery (DARD): I have two points. First, the corporate costs include the estate and staff. Staff is a big element, and they are on the same terms and conditions as civil servants. We have control over the number of staff and over how they are paid and remunerated. That gives us an assurance that they are not, by any means, being over-remunerated. The estate is —

117. Mr Adrian McQuillan (DUP): How do the royalties tie into that?

118.Mr G Lavery: The royalties come in as an income stream and basically offset funding that, otherwise, the taxpayer would have to give.

119. Mr McQuillan: Do individuals not get royalties as well?

120. Mr G Lavery: There is a standard intellectual property scheme in line with the arrangements in a number of public sector bodies. It is on a sliding scale, depending on how the intellectual property is exploited. For example, at the top level, the vast bulk of the income goes to the organisation. For a very small piece of intellectual property, the vast bulk goes to the individual. It is a standard scheme that is approved by the Department and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).

Is this a case of the PAC choosing to set its own standards to one side just to make an offbeat ideological statement? If both DARD and DFP approved the arrangement, there really was nothing for them to examine in this regard.

In any case, the principle of rewarding scientific innovation both inside and outside the public service is not a case of staff “simply discharging their duties.” Binning it would likely discourage higher level applicants and increase the burden on taxpayers.

Nice work if you can get it, PAC…

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  • cynic2

    Great lets go down this road sand see our research facilities in all our Universities collapse as the talent goes elsewhere

    And all this form 104 MLAs who main preoccupation is exploiting their own expenses rather than innovations

  • aquifer

    “current legislation requires an employer to agree some form of scheme which provides employees with a “fair share” of commercial benefits derived from intellectual property which they have developed.”

    Sounds fair enough. Do the PAC want all the smart people to clear off and make more money for tax dodgers instead?

  • Ruarai

    Un burrito hablando de orejas

    I would love to see an infographic juxtaposing the productivity of the 7 members/former members of the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute whose payments are under examination here, with the Stormont Gravy Boaters doing the examining.

    Publish that one in every online edition of NI’s local papers and let the public vote for the group least useful and valuable for money.

  • Naughton

    Well done Mick. This is another example of economic illiteracy and prejudice all too prevelant from the folks on the hill. This kind of half-baked excuse to grandstand is sadly typical of so many of our MLAs.

    PAC in particular has developed a reputation for looking for things to get on to GMU about rather than trying to improve the use of public money. There is a lot to complain about in how our public services perform, but much of that inefficiency is driven by a fear of change and reform that is exacerbated by PAC rather than encouraged or helped.

    Perhaps if our MLAs could instead try to come up with some serious proposals to tackle waste, economic inactivity, our dreadful productivity, poor export perfomance and youth unemployment we might be getting value for money from them.

  • Mick Fealty

    That willingness to pursue controversy is something that’s been thrown at the southern PAC too. But this is a search that seems to be willfully looking away from the real problems on the hill and looking anywhere else.

    There’s a real whiff of Constable Savage to it all:

    “Looking at me in a funny way…”

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think the scientific question is whether this scheme finances and incentivises public sector research, there are theories but I would like to see fiscal economic research data to see if the economic theories hold up.

    The political question is whether said research remains in the public domain if the taxpayer has paid for it or if the public taxpayer is financing private business on research patents that are basically private commercial property.

    I am biased given my avatar name, but the holistic approach to science funding has to be taken so facilitating the profits of a handful of scientists and private research firms may not worth shrinking the public science budget for the rest.

    Public financing in science pays for actions that are not market profitable such as environmental cleanup and protection, NHS healthcare, blue sky international collaborations on “Big Science” projects even some military/defence research. Private gains do need to be investigated in the context of exploiting the public. Also commercial science success noes not necessarily vindicate that good science has been practiced which is why science funding into forensic and clinical investigations and the security of peer review is vital to knowledge protection.

    Other than that the political interest into the nature of the research should follow the Haldane Principles.