Leader: We must forge business links

June 22, 2007

All academics know that the way to the top is to publish highly cited papers in the most prestigious journals. In some subjects, such as history, a brilliant book might do instead. And in some newer institutions especially, distinguished teaching might count for something. But when did anyone ever get promoted for building links with industry?

We report that, in some institutions at least, there may soon be more kudos for strengthening relations with the commercial world. Two groupings, one in the Midlands and another in the North of England, plan to create research projects jointly with local companies, and they are aiming at the top end of the market. Subjects on the radar include regenerative medicine, nanotechnology and computer games.

Few companies take research seriously. They do too little themselves, and they commission too little from universities. This means that they often fail to make the best use of what universities have to offer.

The most promising part of the new systems being put in place by these university groups is that firms and universities will plan research jointly. This will help each side to learn more about how the other approaches research.

For universities to make the most of this opportunity, dealings with industry have to be promoted in the university pecking order. The term “third leg”, which implies that such work is an oddity that can never compete as a priority with research and teaching, should certainly be abandoned.
Instead, working with industry should be a normal use of staff time. Success should be an acknowledged way of winning promotion, not a marginal activity.

If universities can get their dealings with industry right, several good things should follow. For Government, there will be the pleasing sight of new jobs in high technology. For companies, there will be new products and the profits that go with them. For universities, there would be money, but there would be other advantages too. In a tough climate for public spending, being seen to deliver one of the Government’s biggest priorities must be the smart move.

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