Safeguarding universities’ talent pool in a globally competitive environment

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Universities cannot compete with industry on salary, but they can still attract and retain top academic talent by offering academic freedom

The global market for research talent has never been more keenly contested. This ever-escalating demand for academic talent is shared by all research-intensive universities looking for a competitive advantage. It is also shared by corporations with salary budgets far exceeding that of academia. But this does not mean that universities cannot compete.

Dave Robertson, professor of applied logic and head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, recognises that the bottom-line salary advantage that industry holds, but believes that the situation is a lot more complicated than a simple case of the “brain drain” scenario where top researchers are syphoned off by industry.

“It’s more selective than that,” he says. “Actually, it is a lot more intimate than that. I am finding quite a few of the main industrial players want to come and set up things inside of universities, not because they necessarily want to pull out the staff but because they want to have a shared agenda.”

This shared agenda is borne of a recognition that industry alone cannot fulfil its research objectives. Similarly, universities themselves need industry, too. Smart cities and precision medicine are two examples of systems-based research programmes with vast scales, for which collaboration between higher education and both public and private sectors is essential.

“All of these are things that affect populations of people,” says Professor Robertson. “They only ever have an effect if they fit into the systems that are being used in those contexts. Universities will never do that. That will always be done by some combination of public sector and industry. What you want really is to connect into that so that you can make a difference, so you are doing things that are relevant.”

An integrated model of higher education and industry collaborating on shared areas of interest facilitates translational research outcomes. As Professor Robertson notes, with good industry connections, research outcomes that before might have taken years to apply now take months. Yet it is important that such research is given space to develop. Concepts such as neural networks are a case in point – such research had to wait decades before it was brought into the realm of the possible by computational power. “That absolutely ground-breaking, world-changing idea could take decades to come through,” says Professor Robertson. Here, universities can offer researchers something that industry cannot: academic freedom. Professor Robertson believes this is powerful counterweight to the lure of a higher-salaried future in industry.

Sarah Main, executive director for the UK non-profit organisation Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), believes the overlap in research interests between higher education and industry has seen researchers freer to pursue a career in both – often to the benefit of higher education, and always to the betterment of the UK’s science base.

“We are fortunate to have a range of options open to researchers for where they might choose to do their research and I think that that’s quite a positive thing,” says Dr Main. “If we can facilitate and enhance the routes through which individual researchers can journey through a number of those settings, I think it will actually make our research base even more interesting and effective. How great would it be to have researchers in academia who have experienced multiple private and public sector settings for research? I think that is all to the good.”

Professor Robertson agrees. It is important for researchers to move fluidly between the two sectors, he argues. In areas such as systems engineering for chip design, there is an equal chance that the best ideas will come from industry, and higher education is in the business of best ideas. Professor Robertson sees his job as creating the environment to support researchers in whatever field that they choose. Politics and the economy can present challenges at a macro level, but so long as those in leadership positions hew close to the fundamentals, the institution, industry and the country will benefit.

“You keep your eye on the ball,” he explains. “And that is: academic freedom, good ideas, internationalisation. Let people do what they want in a controlled environment and nature will take care of the rest.”

Dave Robertson and Sarah Main were participants in the UK Academic Salon 2019.

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