Good in the lab, but bad at making firm friends

Principal investigators on large research projects do not have the necessary skills to foster strong relationships between the academy and business, according to a council member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

December 20, 2012

Speaking at a conference in London on 12 December, John Howkins, a visiting professor at City University’s Centre for Cultural Policy and Management, lamented researchers’ lack of experience in managing large teams and huge budgets.

“We have found increasingly that when we fund a big research effort, the principal investigators are interacting with the business community and there is a problem in [their] skills,” Professor Howkins said.

He added that there was a “skills gap” which meant that although principal investigators were academically very well qualified, they often did not have managerial or financial skills.

Big projects may have a budget of £6 million or £7 million, which requires principal investigators “to manage a rather extraordinary and ad hoc combination of people from academia, business and non-profit [sectors]”, Professor Howkins told delegates at the Westminster Media Forum seminar, entitled The UK’s Creative Economy: Creating the Conditions for Growth.

Panellists at the event were asked what universities could do to help students and staff create start-up companies.

Benjamin Wirtz, co-founder and director of Handy Elephant, a professional networking website, argued that universities needed to create and support societies for student entrepreneurs as well as providing infrastructure such as office facilities so that students had the space to begin start-ups.

He said that although giving students exposure to successful entrepreneurs at talks and workshops was beneficial, it was not enough.

Dinah Caine, chief executive of Creative Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative industries, emphasised the importance of “fusion” between creative and business courses.

She argued that it was important for institutions to remove barriers between disciplines and that nearby companies should offer “incubating” spaces for student entrepreneurs.

Ms Caine pointed to the role played by the University of Abertay Dundee, which has nurtured relationships between the creative and business communities, in making Dundee a centre for computer games companies.

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