Aladdin's IP cave may prove illusory

Scholars considering research future don't put too much hope in spin-offs. Matthew Reisz reports

January 26, 2012

Spin-off companies, the decline of "reflective enquiry" and employers' unacknowledged enthusiasm for arts graduates all came up for debate at a conference in Cambridge, titled The Future of Research-Intensive Universities in the UK and Europe.

Speaking at the event last week, Lord Rees, president of Trinity College, Cambridge, noted that the 1963 Robbins report on higher education, unlike its successors, had stressed that "reflective enquiry" was crucial to university life.

"Intellectual freedom, time and a supportive environment" were among the crucial factors that had helped the University of Manchester's Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov to win the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics, he added. The key today was "attracting more people into academia to produce the best research", which is many times more valuable in the long run than the "merely good".

Baroness Blackstone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, argued that all universities should do some research so that as many students as possible were exposed to "research-based teaching".

With research funding already highly selective, it was vital to ensure that this trend did not go any further, she said.

What was required instead was "a fluid system" that allowed institutions to "move towards greater and better research over time, rather than setting existing levels in stone".

A comment from the floor suggested that research-intensive universities needed to look at where they were going wrong, for example in using postgraduates purely to further the research goals of their supervisors.

Another claimed that the "institutional anxieties and neuroses" that beset younger academics were now "squeezing out reflective enquiry".

Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said he had started training as a violinist at the Royal College of Music before becoming a geneticist - and still considered himself to be a "failed musician" rather than a "successful scientist".

The complete university, he argued, needed to be "research-led across the boundaries" between science, technology, engineering and maths subjects and the social sciences and humanities.

Not only were the skills and employment prospects offered by the subjects essentially the same, he said, but most of today's "critical research problems" required input from multiple disciplines.

Other participants agreed that although employers often claimed to want more science graduates, they were in reality happy to take on high-achieving arts students.

Another session examined the role of knowledge transfer. It was something of an illusion, suggested David Cleevely, founder director of the University of Cambridge's Centre for Science and Policy, to believe there was "an Aladdin's cave of intellectual property" in the sector.

Although someone had described Cambridge as "a veal factory" that sold its best ideas too early, hopes for income from such sources were often grossly exaggerated, he said.

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