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

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…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty