Take care of innovation

July 16, 2015

Over the years, I’ve seen many reviews of academic-industry collaboration come and go, with varying degrees of success. I hope that the new Dowling Review will finally deliver real and lasting improvements to the current system – but it will do so only if politicians are willing to back its laudable recommendations with hard action.

In launching her review last week, Dame Ann Dowling pointed to the need to simplify the current fragmented system of schemes intended to promote collaboration – and she was right to do so.

While preparing evidence for the Dowling Review, I counted 17 different funding schemes attempting to address university-business collaboration. Not only is the current system confusing to navigate, but schemes also change before we know whether or not they are effective. What we really need are secure, stable, long-term government funding schemes to support research and development in the UK.

I work at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, and we have found one existing support measure – the Higher Education Innovation Fund – to be particularly effective for driving collaboration between academia and industry. HEIF funding has been a critical factor in our success in recent years at partnering with industry and developing a succession of cancer treatments. HEIF funding has allowed us to build up a team of people who are experienced at brokering interactions between business and academia, and it is flexible enough that it can be used by institutions in different ways to support them in working with business and the community in the best way for them.

So I was delighted to see that the Dowling Review supported the calls from us and others for the government to make a long-term commitment to HEIF funding. Academic-industry partnerships bring huge benefits to society – not only in economic terms but also in human ones, by transforming scientific discoveries into treatments for diseases. It is vital that the government act on the findings of the Dowling Review and put in place a coherent, stable system to promote innovation – including the financial support needed to make it happen.

Angela Kukula
Director of enterprise
Institute of Cancer Research, London

Chair, PraxisUnico

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Reader's comments (1)

The government, so rumour has it, is considering - in an extraordinary demonstration of cutting off noses to spite faces - reducing or even abolishing HEIF as a contribution to the £450m cuts in funding needed from BIS. The logic for reducing or abolishing HEIF funding seems to consist of two assertions - the first, that near market transactions don't need government funding because there is no market failure any longer (HEIF, this argument says, itself has seen to that) and the second, that other investments (Catapults, Innovate UK, NCUB) provide the infrastructure collectively which therefore doesn't need to be provided through HEIF at the institutional level. Both are wrong. The first argument is fundamentally flawed on two counts. Universities do not, in fact, sell knowledge exchange services but work at translating knowhow and research knowledge into resources they can sell. 'Translation' happens in a market failure context, and happens nearest to the point of research or knowhow generation - inside the institution, preferably inside the academic department or research centre. If the government conceives of this translation as being no more than a university, like a business, 'having an R&D programme', it is wrong: government has placed so many mandates on HE that academics struggle to stay the course with translation work, even in an era of reward for 'impact'. Having sold the line to the rest of the community (business and public) that universities are 'useful' first and of longer social benefit only secondarily, the government may now be steering a course toward abandoning higher value, strategically vital, translation resulting from months of solid work on both sides to achieve it for, instead, quick wins - more CPD, more EU projects, more IP licensing to fill the gap in funding. The second argument is even weaker. It supposes that the recent funding of national machinery has been a success (when without the local translation machinery, precisely nothing would have been possible), and that while the 'no market failure, no funding' argument seems to the government to hold at the level of individual institutions, it miraculously does hold at the level of national machinery. It supposes, in short, that aggregators of activity actually generate it. They do not. Above all, the government has to understand what happens with HEIF funding. It is, in effect, an investment and a loan. Put £1 of tax payers money into a university and get £6 back doesn't sound like a dreadful deal - particularly when we're talking about work of strategic importance for Britain's knowledge economy future. In a period of such low growth that even capital updating for technical change isn't taking place, that sounds significantly better than many other public investments being funded - three times as much as the return projected, for instance, for the £59bn to be invested in HS2. Moreover that 600% return is realised, largely, in year. And that return only takes into account the benefit recieved, not the wider social benefit generated - some of which will never be monetized, but will be vital for our society and, yes, for our economy.