Business ethos 'a blight on research'

Scientist calls for commercial and academic attitudes to change, reports Hannah Fearn

August 21, 2008

Universities in Britain and New Zealand are blighted by a focus on managerialism and commercialism, according to a scientist at the University of Otago.

In his report Change in Universities, technology transfer and the commercial world, Robert Miller, an honorary fellow at the university in Dunedin, says a clash of cultures between the two sectors is holding back research.

"In the past 20 years in Britain and New Zealand a style of university administration has developed, with excesses of both managerialism and demands for accountability, which prevent real innovation from emerging. In their research role, this has placed short-term aims above more fundamental, long-term initiatives," Dr Miller says in his paper, published on his blog, www.robertmiller-octspan.co.nz.

The academic argues that the proper role of university research in relation to technology transfer is to provide a large "well" of expertise covering a wide range of subjects, regardless of its commercial potential.

"Effective deployment of basic research in the form of practical applications is most likely to arise if a climate of continual dialogue between academia and the commercial world is achieved," the paper says.

"This will require change in attitudes in academia; but it will also require increasing openness and transparency in the commercial world."

Dr Miller told Times Higher Education: "The dominance of the commercial imperative within universities has often meant loss of open communication and collegiality. These are the lifeblood of universities and science. Their loss undermines real innovation."

He said he hoped that the paper would prompt "some fundamental re-thinking of the role of university research in the contemporary world, at least in NZ and Britain".

"I see some signs that commercial enterprises realise they have much to gain from partnership on equal terms with academia, adopting some of the ethos traditionally associated with universities," Dr Miller added.

Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, welcomed the paper. "I totally agree. We believe there is still some way to go in the fusing of the two cultures between academia and business," he said. "What we've been arguing is that we would ultimately seek a partnership with business, and partnerships are based on long-term activities."

Mr Graham said that secondments between universities, businesses and even government policymakers would help to bridge the gap. "Let academics spend time in business and business people spend time in universities - that is one way of breaking down barriers."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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