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Less Red Tape + More Shared, Structured, and Normalized Data = Faster Chemical Innovation

Posted on May 4th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

Chem plant

Chemical innovation in Europe and the US has become less friendly to fundamental research-based breakthrough innovation in recent years – but leading chemical organizations are pushing back. Eight of Germany’s top chemical firms recently published a position paper calling on the EU government to be more supportive of collaborations between universities and the industry, and to lower administrative and bureaucratic barriers to innovation.

Despite steady increases in R&D funding, the paper’s signers emphasize that tight patent regulations and contractual complexities – along with a tendency to allocate funds to administrative functions rather than to R&D – weaken research collaboration between chemical companies and publicly funded research institutions.

With the help of streamlined collaboration tools and a reduction in red tape, the paper argues, innovation could proceed much more rapidly.

Narrowing the funding gap

Germany is far from the only country facing challenges in the field of chemical innovation. American giants Dow and DuPont have been conducting large-scale layoffs and have drastically reduced their R&D budgets in response to investor pressure to focus on practical applications in specific industries, rather than open-ended research. Only two of the world’s top 10 chemical R&D spenders are now based in the US.

Meanwhile, Asian countries now account for more than 32 percent of global spending on science.

In China, research investment has increased by an average of 19.5 percent annually, from 2003 to 2013. China alone now accounts for 20 percent of worldwide R&D spend, and Chinese chemical companies are now in talks to acquire European firms.

In the West, some nations are actively moving to narrow this research gap. In 2016, the UK pledged to increase R&D funding by £2 billion per year by 2020, and to form a new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) which aims to add £23 billion of funding to various scientific sectors by 2022. German chemical companies, meanwhile, increased their research budgets by €10.5 billion (£8.9 billion) in 2015 – but this translates to a mere four percent increase.

Though it’s clear that major increases in R&D funding are needed, a lack of funds is only one component of a larger problem.

The need to share findings

“Part of the success of the chemical field in Germany stems from the traditionally tight exchange between basic research and industry,” says Wolfram Koch, executive director at the German Chemical Society. In recent years, labyrinthine bureaucracy has limited collaboration between these two sectors. The result, Koch says, is that chemical firms “no longer benefit from academic know-how.”

These bureaucratic complexities involve a number of interwoven factors. Many universities lack the financial resources to fund the sort of large-scale research infrastructure commonly found in the commercial sector. Strenuous patent regulations and convoluted contracts can also discourage collaboration between industry and academia – as can the fact that, in academic settings, funding is more often spent on administration than on actual R&D.

However, many of these hurdles would become easier to clear if industrial labs had access to validated, structured, normalized data from university experimental outcomes, and also better access to their commercial counterparts’ research findings. Although intellectual property concerns necessitate a certain amount of protectiveness around data, US and European firms might do well to follow the example of their Asian counterparts, who actively seek out data-sharing partnerships with companies and institutions around the world.

Without such partnerships – and search platforms that enable researchers to discover relevant findings from other labs – R&D departments can waste years replicating research that’s already been published elsewhere in the world, simply because they weren’t aware of the data’s existence. They may also waste millions of dollars in funding the construction of new facilities, while other teams can achieve their desired results by repurposing existing equipment.

Firms and institutions that aim to increase chemical innovation will need to not only reduce red tape, but also take steps to facilitate the sharing and discovery of published data in navigable, contextualized formats – both in their own countries, and around the globe.


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All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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