The field of research into microbial electrochemical cells (MxC) has been around, in its current form, for more than ten years now. When I explain the technology to people, the response I get is usually the same, “Wow! That’s the future! When is this going to be commercialized?” To which the answer is invariably somewhere between 2-5 years. Yes, for the last decade, MXC technology has been in a state of imminent commercialization; for the last 10 years, commercial MXCs have only been a few years away. Watching this discussion at EU-ISMET, I could not help but feel that the room was aware of this fact and yet no one was willing to ‘get real’ about the issue. Speaking with various researchers during the conference and over the past year, I definitely gathered the sense that people are aware and a bit frustrated by this situation.
So what are the major pitfalls of using academia to conduct ‘use inspired research’ for the sake of commercializing industrial scale technologies and how do we solve them? First, we must recognize that commercialization within the field of academia is intentionally and systematically difficult.
Traditionally, the primary motivating factor within academia has been the push to publish new information in research journals so that the research lab and institution at which the lab resides can achieve greater scientific impact and esteem. Researchers are motivated by this drive because their primary funding sources are through research grants that are often rewarded to labs based on merit and impact. In other words- labs which publish more data and hold more patents are considered to have higher impact and thus are more likely to get future funding to publish more data. This positive feedback loop, although beneficial in that it encourages scientists to publish meaningful results, has very dire systematic flaws.
"It should never be the case that a scientist is discouraged from disseminating his or her data due to fear of the consequences resulting from a systematically flawed research climate."
Flaw number one: it often discourages scientists from disseminating information to other labs. When any scientist, from undergraduate researcher, to graduate student, to post doc, all the way up to senior professor, hears about another lab working on a similar project, the natural inclination is often to publish as quickly as possible in fear that the other lab may publish similar information first. If a scientist is working on a research project and discovers a fascinating new phenomenon, the impact of publishing information about that phenomenon will be greatly diminished if someone else publishes similar information first. We call this situation being ‘scooped.’ In science, for the most part, the first lab to publish about a discovery gets to talk about that discovery in journals which have higher impact. In other words, the first lab to talk about a discovery is going to get the most credit and thus have a greater opportunity to receive funding in the future. When we are taught about the scientific method in school, we are told that science must necessarily be confirmed by future research to verify and validate. However, in practice, this is not always the case. If a scientist attempts to publish a research paper that ‘verifies’ another research paper, he or she will almost always be forced to publish in a very low impact journal (ones that are read by only few), or worse, they may not be able to publish at all.
In order to graduate and mature as a scientist/ develop a career, it is essential to publish and to publish at the highest impact possible. In order to procure funding to continue developing technology and conducting research in your field, it is essential to publish and to publish at the highest impact possible. Without publication, scientists do not graduate and labs do not receive funding- this is what we mean with the term ‘publish or perish.’ Given this reality, many are skeptical about sharing data; some going as far as to not tell others about their results entirely until they are published.
"...citizens not affiliated with large research institutions or companies that pay enormous subscription fees cannot access the data that they paid for!"
Flaw number two: the publication process is very time intensive and expensive. For a research paper to be published, it must contain a complete story and undergo intense scrutiny and vetting by other experts in the field. This system has its benefits- it prevents information that may otherwise be unreliable or misleading from misinforming other scientists. However, this system is also fundamentally flawed in terms of commercializing technology. For example, in order to publish you must tell a complete story with a succinct ‘take home message.’ Graph 1 must lead to graph 2, to chart 3, etc… until a solid conclusion can be drawn. In theory, this sounds full-proof, but in practice it does not always make sense. For example, my publication about the “Effect of pH and buffer concentration on anode biofilms of Thermincola ferriacetica” (including supporting information) contains eleven graphs, nine images, and four tables, that all present different data which when combined together reach a single conclusion. However, each graph tells a story in-and-of itself. If another research lab were interested in say, the pH range of T. ferriacetica, they would not be able to find that information until after I had gathered all of the data from my other experiments, composed everything into an article, drew a conclusion, and then had that conclusion vetted within the context of everything currently published in the field. To publish this paper, I had to construct and operate greater than 20 reactors (that worked) over three years. Unless I am willing to freely discuss my findings prior to publication, a researcher working to commercialize a thermophilic MxC may have to wait several years to perfect a reactor design based on data that was ‘waiting to be published.’ If I do choose to share my data, I run the risk of someone else publishing that data first and losing most of the credit, funding, and potentially my opportunity to graduate.
Flaw number three: research institutions are becoming more driven by the concept of patenting intellectual property (IP). If a scientist develops or discovers an essential break-through that will trouble-shoot a major issue in commercializing a research project, they are often discouraged from disseminating this information until their research institution has the opportunity to patent the idea and own the IP. Even more confounding is that often the funding used to conduct the research is granted by governmental institutions that allocate funds from a pool of money that is acquired from tax payers! For example, my research in the USA was funded by the Office of Naval Research, which is funded by the US Navy, which is a branch of the military that receives part of its funding from national taxes. Yet, when I published my data in the ‘high impact’ journal Bioelectrochemistry, I was informed that it would not be ‘open access.’ What this means is that citizens not affiliated with large research institutions or companies that pay enormous subscription fees cannot access the data that they paid for!
"It may seem impossible to insist that we change the entire academic system for the sake of commercializing the technologies of the future; so did finding bacteria that breathe metal and nuclear waste to develop the very technologies we seek to commercialize."
Taken these three flaws together, it is clear how academia is a systematically flawed and difficult avenue through which to commercialize experimental technologies like MxCs. The system in which research scientists operate is a system that is in the business of publishing information before others do so that they can perpetuate themselves by acquiring future funding and IP. As research scientists, our jobs depend on the idea that we publish something first and maximize our impact so that we can continue to conduct research in our labs and so that we can graduate to acquire higher academic status or positions in companies; not so that we can commercialize engineering innovations like MxCs. I met with one high ranking scientists in charge of a major international association/ think-tank that is in fear of losing their job because they are more focused on commercializing their technologies than publishing in scientific journals. This is why, during the discussion of the closing session, I uttered, “we [in academia] are not in the business of commercializing MxCs; we are in the business of publishing.” This is our primary dilemma.
"If we want to shift the paradigm of academia from one of basic research to one of use inspired research, we ought also to shift the paradigm through which we assess impact, disseminate information, and obtain research grants."
If we want to commercialize MxCs, we can no longer be in the business of publishing. For research scientists to leave the business of publishing, we need to operate as a collective and see our role within the ISMET society as something more than one scientist working in one lab on one research project. We need to see ourselves as an essential piece of a cohesive unit that is working together every day to commercialize a technology. We need international perspective. We need to disseminate our information as if we were the same company in a commercial industry. We need a collective call to action. Our primary goal must be to commercialize together, not to publish and patent snippets of information apart.
It may seem impossible to insist that we change the entire academic system for the sake of commercializing the technologies of the future; so did finding bacteria that breathe metal and nuclear waste to develop the very technologies we seek to commercialize.
I am very grateful to be in the field of microbial electrochemical technology. Through my travels, I have been delighted to experience so many bright individuals that are enthusiastic about their research, open to sharing information, and excited to have their research highlighted in an open forum. I am here, on this mission to ScienceTheEarth, not because I am alone in these ideals. Rather, we are here, on this mission to ScienceTheEarth, because we are together in them.
Contact: Bradley.firstname.lastname@example.org, @LuskBrad, @Bradley.Lusk, Research Gate, LinkedIn