Leader: Are industry links dulling the cutting edge of research?

January 10, 2003

It has become an article of faith in British higher education that researchers should collaborate closely with business and industry. Doubtless, this month's government strategy document will stress the benefits for the economy, while international comparisons such as the European Commission's study of innovation invariably portray our universities as leaders in the field. Yet a report for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council suggests that such interaction may be constraining the creativity for which UK chemists have been famous over the years.

The EPSRC's 12-strong international panel, led by Harvard University's head of chemistry, does not question British chemists' scholarship, but it identifies a dip in innovation and discovery since the golden days of Fred Sanger and Max Perutz. Although the assessors cannot be certain of the reason for the perceived shift to safer, more incremental research, they suspect that the relationship with industry is largely to blame. When a third of funding comes from private firms, university departments inevitably focus on product-related work.

Fundamental changes in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries mean that there are good reasons for private-sector paymasters to have shifted their priorities. But the pivotal role of chemistry in linking the various branches of science and engineering makes it essential that top researchers enjoy the freedom to pursue leads that can produce groundbreaking advances. And if the analysis is correct, moreover, there is little reason to suppose that other subjects are any different.

Some of the panel's remedies are less than practical: they favour a 20-year timescale, for example, to produce the breakthroughs that would bring real benefits to industry and to society in general. So, no doubt, do academics, but such contracts are scarce commodities in any part of the world. The report's call for better support for interdisciplinary research and for incentives to link top-tier research departments with promising counterparts should not be ignored, however. The debate on future research policy has centred on ministers' desire to concentrate funding yet further, but the EPSRC has shown that there is much more to consider. Even the sacred cow of industrial links must be included in a strategy review.

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