Don't count on a sugar daddy

November 24, 2006

The marriage of industry funds and academic research is not a one-sided affair, says Harriet Swain. Sponsors expect a mutually beneficial relationship and it might be worth looking into a prenup.

It's easy. You get on with your work. Your sponsor gives you lots of money. What's not to like? Unfortunately, your industry partner may not see the relationship in quite the same way. "The partnership should be established on the basis of mutual interest," says Richard Brown, director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education. "If there isn't mutual interest, you shouldn't enter the partnership in the first place."

Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, says you have to make these mutual interests explicit early on in the relationship with your research sponsor. "If the sponsor expects that he or she can tell me what results they want, can use my research in the way he or she wants and can stop me publishing, and if what I want is academic freedom and no restrictions whatsoever, then we aren't going to have a deal," he says. "The time to find that out is at the initial meetings."

He warns that the danger is the implicit assumptions both sides make. Academics take it for granted that they will have freedom to publish what they like. Business partners are unlikely to make the same assumptions.

Barr says it is important to agree how the company concerned can use your name, and to make clear how you can use the research you have carried out under their name - there may be time restrictions on publishing, because of commercial confidentiality for example. But he says you have to think the agreement through carefully - perhaps with outside help - because sticking points often arise over aspects of the relationship that neither party had seen as a potential problem.

On the other hand, Brown says academics should not assume that industry simply wants hard outputs. Sometimes, companies want a relationship with researchers because of the stimulation it can offer beyond responding to a particular brief. "Rolls-Royce says it goes to academics not just because the academics will solve their problems, but because they will come back and think of the next problem that Rolls-Royce didn't even know existed," he says. "That's part of giving an interesting, stimulating time."

A good-practice guide published by the Association for University Research and Industry Links says that to gain the most from a partnership between higher education and industry, each partner should try to gain understanding of the other's needs, motivations and culture.

John Humphreys, pro vice-chancellor, research and enterprise, at Greenwich University, says you must make sure that there is a good match between what interests the sponsor and what interests the university - "otherwise you will get pulled in different directions". He warns against trying to persuade sponsors to enter areas that don't excite them.

Fabien Petitcolas, head of intellectual capital development and community at Microsoft Research, says the main thing his company looks for is quality of research and relevance to the areas it is interested in.

It particularly likes close collaboration between its own researchers and those in academia, including joint publications and appearances at conferences. About half the PhD students that Microsoft sponsors are co-mentored or supervised by Microsoft researchers and, ideally, the company would like this to be true of all its PhD students.

"If it's just about giving the money for sponsorship of research and there's no interaction, there's not much benefit," he says. "We are looking for an intellectual contribution that's very difficult to quantify. Ideas develop through contact with other people."

Brown says relationships are built on individuals and, if the individual chemistry isn't working, it is often a good idea to pull out early.

But Bob Berry, Boots professor of accounting and finance at Nottingham University, says you have to work hard at these relationships. He writes an annual report about his activities for Boots, regularly visits the company and has occasional meals with executives to discuss what both sides are doing.

"The personnel you are working with in an organisation can change quite rapidly, and it's easy to become disconnected," Berry says. He tries to maintain a contact at board level, and he keeps in touch with former graduates who work for the company.

Both sides should also make sure that the relationship is based on more than just money. Boots is helpful in giving Berry access to the information he needs for research and teaching and answering questions he may have about the business world. In turn, Berry always pays serious attention to research requests Boots may have and has provided occasional corporate training.

Petitcolas says that Microsoft finds it helpful if academics explain where their research is being published or what conferences they are addressing, because "that's how we see they are doing something good with the funding we provide".

Humphreys says you have to recognise that sponsoring is not the core business of the sponsor and that the onus is on the university to make the process easy for them. He says there should be one university point of contact who is sufficiently well-connected to co-ordinate all the sponsor's activities in that university. The university should also make an effort to involve sponsors in the life of the university, by inviting them to degree ceremonies or ministerial visits, for example. And Humphreys says that a reporting-back structure is essential to help identify potential problems early on.

Berry has one other piece of advice. If asked by the press to comment on the company sponsoring him, he always declines.

Further information

Council for Industry and Higher Education:

Partnerships for Research and Innovation between Industry and Universities published by the Association for University Research and Industry Links:

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