Brown's man sidesteps industry row

June 13, 2003

The man charged with kick-starting the UK's knowledge economy by forcing universities to work more closely with business is set to surprise ministers by opting for a softly-softly approach.

Richard Lambert was commissioned by the chancellor to scrutinise universities' external links and governance. His report was expected to signal an assault on ivory-tower attitudes and archaic procedures in higher education.

But, in the first interview since he closed his consultation, Mr Lambert said that the gulf between universities and business was not as wide as was first thought.

The inquiry was announced in last November's pre-budget review. Chancellor Gordon Brown made it clear that he was looking for a shake-up. He said that to boost UK innovation, there had to be better dialogue and interaction between the two sectors "with a stronger pull from business and a more responsive supply from universities".

Mr Lambert said he had been overwhelmed by the response rate, with some 300 organisations writing to him. But the respondents were split conspicuously into higher education and business-sector camps and were divided on their approaches to collaboration. The single biggest obstacle to emerge was the difference in approach to intellectual property (IP) and who should get ownership of the rights.

In their responses, businesses argue that universities tend to overvalue their IP. They say that institutions do not account for the cost of taking technology to market, which makes it too expensive for businesses to work with them to exploit it.

Universities claim that business takes advantage of them. Companies see higher education as a cheap source of research and they often pay the full economic costs since the laboratories are state funded. So institutions are keen to hold on to the IP rights.

Mr Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times , said: "IP is very complex and it really is an issue. Coming down with hard practical proposals will be tricky. But there is a hell of a lot of collaboration going on. Tough things such as IP have been resolved in many cases. This has been shown by the step change over the past ten years in collaboration."

He said clarity over ownership was key to a successful relationship.

Without clear agreement in advance, he said, deals often failed, descending into endless debates and resulting in spiralling legal costs. He said that there was no consensus on whether there should be legislation to clarify the ownership question.

In 1980, the US passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to exploit the fruits of federally funded research and to keep the proceeds.

Some Lambert respondents argued that it had been the making of US technology-transfer activity, others that it had held it back.

Business also argued that universities lacked the necessary expertise in technology transfer. Mr Lambert said that universities were now assembling the right people, although he admitted they would always have trouble competing for staff against large companies.

He pointed to training programmes, such as the one offered by Praxis at the Cambridge MIT Institute, that were helping to train university staff. "As time passes, expertise is building up on both sides, and the relationships are getting better," he said.

Mr Lambert said his proposals would centre on sharing good practice. He said he believed progress was already under way and there were many examples of how people had got together to produce powerful collaborative ventures. He suggested that success was often down to particular individuals and networks and said that one option to help ease the IP issue would be to create an off-the-shelf template that could be used universally but adapted to suit particular interactions.

The regional dimension would also figure prominently in the review. Mr Lambert said: "There is scope for universities to collaborate with each other in technology transfer. Small institutions often cannot afford to have a dynamic technology-transfer office. So it may be better to work as a region."

The Lambert team is due to report back to the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills in September. His findings will also feed directly into the DTI's innovation review. A preliminary analysis is due next month.

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