Deep economic impact: new mission to ensure university research benefits UK business

July 10, 2011

Lord Sainsbury will be part of a new task force launched to investigate ways to turn more university research into viable businesses.

Over the next 12 months the new task force, set up by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, will ask the question: “How does the UK maximise the value of publicly funded research?”

David Eyton, co-chair of the task force and group head of research and technology at BP, said that Europe in general, and the UK particular, had an excellent reputation for producing research. “But somehow it doesn’t end up with business based in the UK so it [the country] doesn’t get as much benefit as it might,” he said.

“It’s very little to do with the research itself but has a lot to do with the relationships between universities and business,” Mr Eyton added.

Launched yesterday, the task force is co-chaired by Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University.

The steering group is comprised of: Lord Sainsbury, the former science minister who is one of the candidates to become chancellor of the University of Cambridge; computing entrepreneur Hermann Hauser; and Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC. The group will meet twice during the year.

The plan is to produce reports and action plans outlining what businesses and universities can do to get “maximum economic impact” from research.

Mr Eyton suggested that the investigation could consider whether in the US there was a much greater willingness to take risks when trying to “spin out” university research.

“There’s a culture where it’s more acceptable to move research into SMEs [small and medium sized enterprises] and fail,” he said. “This is much more difficult in Europe.”

Mr Eyton said “we have a good thing going on” with regard to research in the UK, but warned that the country could not rest on its laurels.

He acknowledged that BP’s interest in the UK’s research system was partially self-interested, because it draws on the academy’s findings, and “the success of the UK’s research system is our success, to an extent”.

“We have made decisions to consolidate our research into the UK because of the quality of the research,” he added.

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