£55m for knowledge transfer

A new multimillion-pound scheme will help universities exploit their research. Matt Rooney reports on the initiative

August 28, 2008

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is making available a pot of £55 million over three years to pioneer new knowledge transfer accounts (KTAs). Universities can use the accounts to help ensure that their academics' discoveries are turned into tangible economic and societal benefits for the UK.

The council plans to fund accounts at up to 25 universities.

The idea behind the accounts is not to provide an avenue for generating new knowledge but for exploiting what already exists. "You have to have a good-size portfolio of EPSRC-funded research, or perhaps a small but exceptionally fruitful research programme, to stand a chance of getting a KTA," said Alan Thomas, head of user-led knowledge and skills at EPSRC.

The call for proposals for universities looking to secure accounts is deliberately non-prescriptive because the EPSRC wants universities to find the best way of exploiting their existing projects themselves.

"It is a demand-led approach to knowledge transfer activities. The diverse range of higher education institutions will have their own strengths and needs. Within the overall plan of exploiting research from EPSRC funds, KTAs should 'find their own space', which might be different in each organisation," he said.

Bids for a KTA are expected to be in the form of a single institutional bid and there can be only one account per university.

However, bids can make a series of "business cases" for the work each university intends to exploit. There is no limit on the number of business cases and they can, if there is justification, include work undertaken in collaboration with other universities - a good way for smaller institutions to become involved.

Every KTA business case must be worth at least £2 million, and the research council wants to see business cases that "outline a distinct, cohesive programme of activities". The call for bids closes on 5 November.

Individual researchers or departments that think they have a broad range of EPSRC-funded science that is suitable for commercial exploitation should co-ordinate with their vice-chancellor to ensure they are included in the institutional bid.

The accounts have evolved from a scheme called Collaborative Training Accounts (CTA). However, CTAs were to be used only for training, whereas it is the EPSRC's hope that KTAs will span the whole spectrum of knowledge transfer activities.

"The university strategy will be important as these are institution-level awards. If a department (for example) has a masters programme that it wants (the EPSRC) to continue to support, then they have to frame a proposal for funding in terms of the knowledge transfer agenda," said Dr Thomas. "There is likely to be quite a lot of debate within institutions about what goes into these KTA bids and why."

Justine Parkinson, manager of EPSRC's knowledge transfer account at University College London - who will be preparing UCL's bid - said, "EPSRC has £55 million to generate a step change in knowledge transfer. At UCL we are developing activities to highlight how we do this as an institution and/or in collaboration with other HEIs as well as with our public, private and third sector partners."

EPSRC sees the new accounts as an important, though single, component of its bigger-picture plans for knowledge transfer. "The Holy Grail for us is for a university to take a completely integrated approach to knowledge transfer, contributing to the development of a knowledge transfer culture," said Dr Thomas.

For smaller universities potentially deterred by the focus of the KTAs on large research institutions, Dr Thomas said there was another option. He pointed to the EPSRC's knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs), which provide funding for businesses to employ recent graduates to liaise with university science departments on possible collaborations.

"The incentive for smaller universities to use this scheme is that EPSRC has a separate pot of money to fund KTPs in institutions that are not KTA-funded," he said.

The first knowledge transfer accounts will be allocated on 1 October 2009.

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