Break down barriers between universities and industry, says report

Complexity of government initiatives to help commercialise university research under scrutiny 

July 2, 2015

The government must simplify the “excessively complex” schemes designed to assist collaboration between industry and universities.

This is according to a report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Academy, said the complexity of existing public support mechanisms causes “frustration and confusion” among academics, meaning the UK is not “reaping the full potential” of connecting innovative businesses with the “excellence in the research base” at UK universities.

The report suggests reducing the overall number of schemes, and simplifying the way in which they are accessed by users.

“The over-arching recommendation is that government should seek to reduce complexity wherever possible and, where simplification is not possible, every effort should be made to ensure that the interface to businesses and academics seeking support for collaborative research and development is as simple as possible,” Dame Ann writes in the report.

The paper calls on the government to provide funding to create a “critical mass of use-inspired research activity within universities”. This, it says, would help to unlock “the full strategic potential of collaborative relationships”. The report proposes an “Awards for Collaborative Excellence” scheme to facilitate this.

“Providing such help will not only result in increased benefits for business, as academics are able to more confidently explore areas of business interest, but also offers the chance to drive new insights in areas of fundamental research,” Dame Ann writes.

Elsewhere, university technology transfer offices should also prioritise knowledge exchange over short-term income generation, and further work is required to improve approaches to contracts and intellectual property agreements, the report claims. Universities should show signs that they support and reward academics’ industrial collaboration.

“We need a change of culture in our universities to support and encourage collaboration with industry,” Dame Ann said. “In the UK we can be a bit dismissive about research that actually has an application, but in reality such use-inspired research can be truly excellent.

“Access to industry projects was cited very positively by the researchers we consulted - they want to be working on these challenging and interesting projects with demonstrable impact and excellent career prospects.”

The report recommends an incentive framework for universities and businesses to promote the transfer of ideas and people between business and academia, including support for research students to develop business awareness early on in their careers and recognition of successful collaborators in terms of career progression and research assessment. A “collaboration map” could be produced, it adds, to expose universities that are failing to collaborate with UK business to commercialise research.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said excellent research was “vital to tackling the productivity gap that is the foremost economic challenge facing this country”.

“Fostering greater collaboration between businesses and universities will provide the new technology and higher-level skills that are vital to raising our productivity,” he said. “We will consider the recommendations very carefully to ensure we make Britain the best place in Europe to innovate, patent new ideas and set up a business.”

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England echoed Mr Johnson’s words, adding that productivity is one of the “greatest challenges” facing the UK at the moment.

For the report, see related files (below).

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