Academia's weaknesses laid bare by firms' debate

Industry figures cite a lack of joined-up thinking and inflated research claims. Hannah Fearn reports

March 12, 2009

Universities are making the UK an unattractive destination for corporate research, industry leaders have warned.

Too many institutions claiming to be research-led, an obsession with intellectual property rights and the failure to match the US on cross-disciplinary research were all cited as weaknesses during a debate at the Royal Society this week.

Michael Walker, director of research and development at Voda- fone, said it was "ridiculous" that more UK universities claimed to be research-led than US institutions.

He added that Chinese firms turning up at the "University of Middle Wallop" to find that "proper research is a myth" would return home with the message that the "UK is not a good place to come for research".

Rik Parker, director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce, complained about the higher education sector's overemphasis on intellectual property (IP) rights.

IP is important, he said, but a huge amount of time and effort is wasted on the issue, which causes "a great deal of frustration" for industry partners.

Mr Parker said that the first 18 months of a contract with a university are often spent thrashing out IP rights, although universities cannot afford to protect them properly.

He added that Rolls-Royce has 19 university technology centres in the UK and ten overseas, but is considering shutting down many of the UK sites.

Mr Parker said the introduction of full economic costing was another major problem for business.

"It's not something universities have done, it's something that has been done to them (by the Government), but it has resulted in the cost of university research rising.

"Industry understands full economic costing - there is no free lunch in industry - but now an engineer costs me less than a researcher. It has distorted the picture," he said.

Tony Meggs, former head of technology at BP and chair of the debate, said that UK academia lags behind other countries in terms of joined-up thinking.

He said: "US universities do better when it comes to mission-based multidisciplinary research. The ability to organise across disciplines and universities to tackle the really large questions is something I believe that we could improve in the UK."

Jackie Hunter, senior vice-president at GlaxoSmithKline, agreed. She added that multidisciplinary research would be a major driver of scientific progress.

"It is going to demand a different skill set. The fiefdom and ring-fenced approach is not going to work in the marketplace. Research has to be networked globally," she said.

Ms Hunter added that ideas generated in the UK were often exploited abroad because of the weaknesses in the relationship between academia and industry.

"We need to make some changes. This is not just academia: industry can do things differently. It's important for people to value not just the transactional research but the in-kind contributions, and look at novel ways of working together."

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