Academia shares research stars with industry to avoid losing them

Long-term benefits of research success – and of building industry relations – may be less direct but far more valuable than royalty payments, summit hears

September 26, 2018
Cheryl Regehr speaks at the World Academic Summit

Industry competition for prime teaching talent has become a problem for universities in fields where the high salaries that attract students can make it hard to keep the experts needed to train them.

Increasingly, however, institutions are reaching for creative solutions to hiring challenges that they hope will benefit companies, their local economies and their researchers.

Innovators include the University of Toronto, which only five years ago regularly watched some of its leading graduates create companies and then pack up and head for places such as San Jose and Boston to develop them. Typically, that meant taking many other talented university graduates with them, Toronto’s provost, Cheryl Regehr, told Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit at the National University of Singapore.

By making conditions more inviting for its brightest inventors, however, Toronto has been reversing that exodus, Professor Regehr said. Prominent successes involve Google and its establishment of artificial intelligence research operations in Toronto through the urging of Geoffrey Hinton, an emeritus professor of computer science who seeks to model the human brain, and Raquel Urtasun, an associate professor of computer science known for developing self-driving cars.

Creating that attractiveness meant assembling a menu of options for bolstering ties between a research university and employers, Professor Regehr said. They include allowing faculty to serve in outside consultant roles, creating shared employment structures and granting leaves of absence, she said.

“There are challenges associated with these kinds of employments,” Professor Regehr told the conference. “But we are incredibly highly motivated to work though those challenges.”

Such solutions can extend beyond the private sector. Professor Regehr described an arrangement for attracting free teaching services from scientists working for Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Because such scientists often work in the northern part of the country, they welcome opportunities to spend time in warmer and less remote areas. The result of that realisation, she said, is a deal in which universities give the scientists free work space on campus, and in return get some of their classes taught for free.

“We provide space, they provide teaching, and their research contributes to our overall research productivity,” Professor Regehr said. “So it’s a real win-win.”

In other cases, universities can get more benefit from industry simply by being less competitive about it. Some institutions make sure to negotiate payments for inventions that could be tied to research conducted on their campuses. The UK has long required it. But that’s proving counterproductive, and should be avoided as much as possible, said Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton.

Stanford University may be a classic case of a failure to capture profits from a spectacular success, having been the incubator for Google, whose parent company is now worth more than $700 billion (£532 billion). But for all the profit-sharing that Stanford theoretically failed to capture, Dame Wendy said, the university has reaped huge value from the Google-related spin-offs that have grown around it.

Universities working with industry certainly need to guard against financial conflicts of interest, and must ensure that students retain the freedom to publish their findings, Professor Regehr said. But the greatest long-term benefits of research success – and of building industry relations – may be rather less direct yet far more valuable than royalty payments, according to Dame Wendy. The Google example was “a lesson in how not to over-regulate”, she said.

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