Freeman plans industry fellowships in bid for ‘innovation nation’

Science minister sets up working group to examine how academics can move more freely between public and private research

March 15, 2022
George Freeman
Source: Richard Townshend

New commercial fellowships that allow academics to apply their research expertise within industry while retaining their university positions could play a key role in Britain becoming an “innovation nation”, the UK’s science minister has said.

In his first interview with Times Higher Education, George Freeman said he was keen to make it easier for researchers to move back and forth between academia and industry and had created a task force to examine new career pathways to enable more interchange between the two sectors.

“I am very struck that if we want to create a science and innovation economy, we need to make sure that people can navigate through that and build careers that support that – we will never create an integrated science and research economy if the vertical career silos make it very difficult to move across the ecosystem,” said Mr Freeman, who worked as a venture capitalist on the Cambridge life sciences scene before becoming an MP in 2010.

“If you think of our research ecosystem as an engine, people are the oil – you need to allow the oil, the talent, to flow right through it,” he added.

In his first speech since taking the science portfolio in September, Mr Freeman outlined his wish for Britain to become a “science superpower” and an “innovation nation” by creating the “most attractive research ecosystem in the world”, which would become a magnet for top international talent. He also told the British Science Association event that the UK would extend its guarantee to fund any successful applicants to Horizon Europe until the end of 2022, and that grants for Russia-linked projects had been suspended to ensure that the UK was “not inadvertently supporting Russian strategic interests”.

The UK had also set aside money to support Ukrainian academics, said Mr Freeman, who argued that Britain’s research strengths would help to “restore the moral mission to this country” by creating jobs, opportunities and avenues for international collaboration.

Creating more opportunities for researchers to step outside academia on a temporary basis would help to attract and retain “a new generation of scientists who are really interested in how they could take their talent and apply it to industry; many of them want to start a company or get involved in industry” but were reluctant to give up hard-won university posts, he said.

“We are thinking about where we can create some much easier career paths – some commercial fellowships so it becomes much more of a respected part of an academic career,” Mr Freeman told THE, adding that he wanted to “look at combining the things that people like about working in a university with the opportunities of stepping out and doing commercialisation without having to lose, unnecessarily, the security of tenure”, he said.

Too often, scientists between the “key years of 25 to 35” felt unable to consider risky moves, such as starting a university spin-off based on their research, because the “realities of starting a home, a family – all those realities hit just at the time when you are at your least secure time in your academic career”, he said.

“Can we make it easier for university academics who do not have to take the huge risk of giving everything up to go and do some commercial work?” he asked, adding that he had set up a “group of very inspiring and inspired young scientists to make sure we have the voice of those people”.

In his speech, Mr Freeman praised the industry-connected research sectors of Israel and Switzerland, which he had recently visited, in particular Israel’s “culture of entrepreneurship and drive for commercialisation”. Its research sector “was cheekier, non-conformist…born out of the necessity that ‘where there is a desert, we will build a garden’”.

However, learning from these systems might be difficult given the historical differences, he warned. “In Switzerland, 70 per cent of researchers go into industry, and the UK does not have that level of industry being highly embedded in academia; while Israel’s approach is much more entrepreneurial,” he added.

Establishing prestigious long-term research fellowships of six to seven years would also help to attract top international scientific talent, added Mr Freeman, saying the “prestige fellowships” funded by Horizon Europe had proved a good model. “Whatever we do, whether in Horizon Europe or outside it, we have to do more to create a space for these fellowships – we can certainly create a more compelling offer and build on the popularity of these Horizon fellowships,” he added.

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