Industry-backed research: beware of dangers, says DCU president

Gearing research too far towards industry goals can lead to short-termist approach, warns Brian MacCraith

May 1, 2016
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Coining it: there may be ‘unacknowledged risks’ in partnering with big business

Business-focused universities should be careful to ensure that working with industry does not damage their wider educational and research endeavours, a leading Irish university president has warned.

While universities across the world have pushed hard to improve their links to industry and attract external sources of funding in recent years, there are some unacknowledged risks involved in partnering with big business, particularly regarding research, said Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor MacCraith said that his institution’s links with Microsoft, Siemens and other multinationals had been hugely beneficial for the university, business and the wider economy, with all of its major research centres linked to industry.

However, universities had to strike the right balance between serving the needs of business and the broader goals of university research, including developing the next generation of academics and researchers, said Professor MacCraith.

“One of the challenges of deep engagement with industry is that it is not aligned with the same timescales as academia,” he explained.

Industrial sponsors were far more likely to favour employing postdoctoral researchers on short-term contracts over funding PhD students on longer contracts, he said.

“If you have a research group of 20, you might normally have 12 or 13 PhD students and six or seven postdocs, but that balance is likely to shift towards more postdocs in a business-focused environment,” Professor MacCraith said.

“That is not necessarily good for the university,” he added, saying that graduate education was one of the main roles of higher education that should not neglected.

Industry partners were also less likely to support PhD students as opposed to postdocs given the less flexible nature of the research undertaken by doctoral students, Professor MacCraith said.

“If a new point of study arises for a postdoc, the research can take a right-hand turn quite easily, but you cannot do that with a PhD in the same way,” he said.

However, Professor MacCraith also praised the positive impact of Dublin City University’s links to industry, in particular the six- to nine-month internships taken by most science and engineering students.

“About 45 per cent of those students receive job offers during the third year of their degree,” he said.

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