Big drop in academics commercialising their research

Despite claims that engagement with business is as important as research and teaching, academics find they have no time for work outside the academy

February 25, 2016
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A dwindling number of academics are commercialising their research, a major survey has revealed.  

The pressures of the 2014 research excellence framework, increasing administrative burden, a weaker economy, a renewed focus on teaching and extra layers of bureaucracy put up by universities have all been blamed for the decline.

The Changing State of Knowledge Exchange, a survey of more than 18,000 academics by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), found that the proportion of respondents doing commercial consultancy has more than halved from 15 per cent to 7 per cent.

Overall, 14 per cent of academics in the period 2012-15 reported commercialising their research, compared with 22 per cent in 2005-08, when the last survey was held. There was also a slight dip in the proportion dealing with non-commercial organisations.

Just 3 per cent reported forming a spin-off company, compared with 5 per cent previously; the proportion licensing their research to companies fell from 6 to 4 per cent; and the number taking out a patent dropped from 8 to 6 per cent, according to the survey, which controlled for the age, subject area, gender, institution and level of seniority of respondents between years.

The finding comes despite the government’s Green Paper on higher education, released last November, claiming that “levels of collaboration between business and academia are increasingly important to the economy”.

Rosa Fernandez, director of research at the NCUB, said that the main reason for the drop-off had been the financial crisis of 2007-08. “External consultancy has gone down dramatically following the recession,” she said.

But Tim Hughes, professor of applied marketing at the University of the West of England, said: “I don’t really buy that recession argument.”

“I’m not sure why the recession would stop academics engaging with businesses and other organisations. Maybe you could argue that businesses need more help when they’re challenged,” he countered.

As an alternative explanation for the “disappointing” figures, Professor Hughes – who has previously worked at Heinz, Nestlé and as a consultant – pointed out that 53 per cent of respondents said that a lack of time prevented them engaging with businesses and other organisations outside academia.

"Work with business and industry" is seen as increasingly crucial for career advancement, the survey finds, with more than one in 10 respondents saying that it was a “highly important promotion criteria”. But more than seven in 10 respondents said the same of “research and publications”.

Lynne Hall, a reader at the University of Sunderland who researches external engagement – supposedly universities’ “third mission” alongside research and teaching – said such activities were seen as being “of no value…it doesn’t bring in money and doesn’t hit targets”.

“Have you ever heard of anybody being headhunted for external engagement?” she asked rhetorically.

The 2014 REF had cut time available for other activities, she said. Dr Hall also blamed a rise in administrative burden.

In recent years, there had also been a “massive drop” in academics doing consultancy work as “bureaucratic” university rules forced them to organise this through the institution. “Every academic I know who does consultancy has to do that,” she said. 

The new teaching excellence framework, planned for 2017-18, would also squeeze out time for external engagement, she said. Overall, Dr Hall expected it to decline further in importance. “We don’t have time and it is of very little value to anybody except the government,” she said.

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Print headline: Dip in academics commercialising research as ‘ third mission sidelined’

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