More fluid routes between academia and industry would boost innovation

Better alignment of pay and benefits, working cultures and expectations will clear the way for research to have impact, say nine Future Leaders fellows

February 6, 2023
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In its most recent strategy document, UK Research and Innovation cites “connectivity” as one of the shifts needed to secure the UK’s status as a “science superpower and innovation nation”.

As a group of researchers supported by UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowship scheme, we heartily agree. The sharing of knowledge between academia, business, government and public agencies is an essential component of successful research and innovation. Cross-sector collaboration allows academic outputs to have wider impact, while experiences from business and the public sector can feed back into academic knowledge development.

However, working conditions within UK higher education hamper its capacity for cross-sector knowledge exchange. Types and levels of collaboration depend on the size of an institution and the sectors in which it operates, with individuals often experiencing challenges at different career stages. But a common barrier is lack of time and/or funding allocated to the initiation – exploring mutual interests, building trust – and, importantly, the maintenance of cross-sector activities, including their associated administrative demands.

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The pressures of time are especially acute in policy, where pre-existing networks are essential and political cycles are much shorter than research cycles. Cross-sector understanding of the roles and responsibilities of individuals and the development of a shared language are vital.

Across sectors, definitions of successful collaborations vary, but development of shared ideas and common goals is a priority. Science aims to test hypotheses and scientists are always open to revising their opinions. But politics often involves taking a stand and sticking to it, while industry’s drive to develop novel products does not always align with academic motivation, the outputs of which may have no immediate translational benefit and may be subject to institutional restrictions on IP ownership and timing of disclosure.  

While the landscape in academia is changing, grant income capture and high-impact publications still dominate as metrics of success. And the challenges of collaboration are compounded by a lack of shared terminology and understanding of individual research methods, processes and evidence, as well as by sectoral stereotypes.

We believe that creating a framework whereby researchers can collaborate easily and move between higher education institutions and the private or public sector will result in the growth of the UK’s research and innovation landscape, leading to improved use of research across sectors. It may also improve universities’ performance in UKRI’s newly developed Knowledge Exchange Framework.

Direct use of research is more prevalent in areas of higher technology readiness, making it easier for researchers to transfer between academic and industrial settings. However, this is still inhibited by the emphasis in academia on research outputs and teaching.

That said, some models of good practice exist. The established training pathways and funding streams for “clinician-scientists” are a good example, facilitating collaboration and bidirectional mobility of staff via joint appointments and honorary contracts (holding a second contract with a non-employing organisation). Such opportunities are increasingly being offered not only to physicians but to other healthcare professionals and academic researchers, and they have undoubtedly contributed to the success of UK medical research.

Specific UKRI funding streams also support interaction between academic and industrial research environments. Examples include Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s “stand-alone” LINK funding and Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund. However, most of these are currently confined to medical and scientific disciplines: they should be extended to the arts and social sciences.

Senior leaders in government, academia and industry must value and support the flexible movement of individuals between sectors. We need better alignment of pay and benefits, working cultures and expectations. And we need schemes to help researchers on visas – including company-sponsored visas – to switch sectors. A dedicated programme of support to help researchers apply for indefinite leave to remain would also help, given the challenges of UK immigration policy.

Wider support of collaborative research initiatives by funders will prompt senior leaders to value and incentivise research translation. Evident and uniform institutional recognition of the commercial aspects of scientific research, such as patents and protection of intellectual property, will also support intersectoral career moves. And the adoption of the “narrative” CV by UKRI offers promise, with its reduced focus on traditional research metrics and greater emphasis on transferability of skills, people development and knowledge exchange.

Training and schemes to enable interaction, such as the Royal Society Industry Fellowships, are relatively well developed for academic researchers, but the principles of these need to be embedded across all sectors. For example, the foundations for a reciprocal relationship do not exist in policy, so incentivising policymakers to work with researchers and use appropriate evidence is important.

Furthermore, in many areas, the opportunity for interaction is isolated and rare. Workshops to showcase collaborative success, supported by seedcorn innovation grants, can help provide connectivity – although short-term interactions are not enough to foster the sharing of ideas and understanding of the benefits of collaborative working.

Whether knowledge exchange should be pursued by all researchers remains an open question. If it should, it needs to be integrated into training. But even if we take the view that it is better led by individual academics through dedicated initiatives, there needs to be much greater opportunity and incentive for others, in all sectors, to engage and participate.

Laura J. Carter is associate professor in soil and environmental chemistry at the University of Leeds. John Baison is a cereal geneticist at RAGT Seeds. Valentina Cambiano and Jenevieve Mannell are associate professors at the Institute of Global Health, UCL. Maria Fragiadaki is senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield. Andrew Logsdail is senior lecturer in catalytic and computational chemistry at Cardiff University. Oliver Mytton is honorary public health consultant at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, UCL. Oyuna Rybdylova is principal lecturer in the School of Architecture, Technology and Engineering at the University of Brighton. Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu is senior lecturer in paediatric infectious diseases at Imperial College London.


Print headline: Moving between academia and industry would boost innovation

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