Selling information in a vacuum

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The test of a good joke is that sooner or later everybody will have heard it but it continues to amuse. Someone must have invented it and in a fairer world would have coined substantial sums in copyright. And who first drew attention to the miraculous properties of the vacuum flask which not only keeps coffee warm and ice-cream cold but knows which function to fulfil on every occasion?

The flask and the jokester came to mind during a recent trawl through the library's serials stock in an unfamiliar discipline. The exercise took considerably longer than anticipated because repeatedly there were features which simply demanded to be read. Some contained an account of advances in knowledge reported by the discoverers while others provided a commentary on progress in a particular field by co-ordinating information from different sources. You learn to differentiate between the genuine research achievement and the propaganda of the huckster. The former invariably emerges from painful and painstaking effort whereas the latter . . . well, it doesn't.

Invitations arrive regularly in the technical and scientific departments of every institution to attend trade exhibitions in the large banqueting suite of a metropolitan hotel. There lecturing staff can inspect at first hand the wondrous products that have been generated in laboratories and can instruct their charges that the solution has been found to another of the world's great problems. The initiated emerge full of chicken fricassee and reassurance. No roof will ever leak again thanks to "Bondoslate", the miracle polymer-based sealant which blah, blah.

There is, however, a great deal of serious work being carried out in our higher education institutions and the more weighty publications reflect this. Institutions are seeking to force the pace of co-operative ventures with industry as funding is squeezed ever tighter. There is a substantial credibility gulf to be bridged before commercial purse-strings are loosened, however, and each time a project fails to deliver the scepticism factor increases disproportionately.

As one contributor at a faculty meeting advised his colleagues: "You will get funding but only if you are working on something with prospects of turning water into wine." From the other end of the table came the world weary observation that, despite years of effort, all that the speaker could boast was that he had a device which regularly converted wine into water but nobody had ever considered patenting that.

The danger now is that in the increasingly desperate hunt for cash the wine will be watered down but offered as vintage with consequent effect on future orders when the lack of body becomes apparent. The new universities in particular are walking a tightrope. As new kids on the block, the smart money is on them to produce in research terms what as polytechnics they boasted was their forte: the direct relevance of their courses to the requirements of the market-place, particularly on what might loosely be described as the scientific side.

They must learn the art of salesmanship. The selection of selling features is a skill in itself and should be undertaken objectively. The trouble is that genuine researchers are obsessed by secrecy through fear of discovery by rivals and half the time their own colleagues are unaware of where their efforts are leading them.

That has to stop. Let's all share the secret of the flasks. Publish your material, your findings, your progress. Stimulate the taste buds of the corporate fundholders. And don't worry, we'll do the jokes.

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