Growing appetite for university-industry collaborations

REF and ‘impact agenda’ makes sector look at collaborations with extra interest, scholars say

March 20, 2014

Source: Alamy

Take note: REF provides more incentive for academic/industry collaboration

Universities are now “hungrier” to work with industry than they have been in the past, according to a man who builds links between academia and industry for a major pharmaceutical company.

Malcolm Skingle, director of academic liaison at GlaxoSmithKline, said that the change has been helped along by the research excellence framework’s impact agenda.

Academics are now incentivised to engage with industry, he added.

For the REF 2014, demonstrating the impact of research is worth 20 per cent of an institution’s final score. Moreover, there is talk that this figure will be increased to 25 per cent for the next exercise, likely to be in 2020.

“If [researchers] take public purse money they should at least think about the potential outcome and what could be exploited,” said Dr Skingle, although he added that it was “fine” if the end result of research had no clear commercial use.

He said that in the past, academics may not have taken as much notice of industry.

“But those days are changing, because they are realising that if they do not start working with industry they are missing out,” Dr Skingle said.

Industry had much to offer academics, he observed, including “a different way of thinking about things” and access to new biological and chemical reagents developed by pharmaceutical companies.

Jon Hunt, deputy director of the Research Development and Support Office at the University of Bath, agreed that universities are now keener to work with industry, but stressed that it was not a new agenda. He added that these links would become more important in the future.

“The messages coming out of all the funding bodies are taking us into a more collaborative space,” he said.

He added that the focus on impact from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the national research councils and the Technology Strategy Board had served to change the way that academics are able to articulate the importance of their research.

“That has translated into much better dialogue with industry,” added Dr Hunt.

“It has had a significant [effect] not just on how you address impact, but also being able to justify why businesses should work with us and apply for funding through [the European Union’s programme] Horizon 2020, for example.”

For Taraneh Dean, director of research at the University of Portsmouth, working with industry has always been “integral” to the institution’s activities.

“However, I do think the REF has made us think differently about such work,” she said.

Professor Dean added that the impact agenda, not necessarily just the REF, has brought a “significant shift” from academics being seen as a “provider of knowledge for industry” towards “a situation where both parties engage in the co-creation of knowledge and the generation of collective impact from it”.

But she warned that the REF’s requirement for universities to provide retrospective evidence of impact from “often reluctant” industrial partners has “introduced an element of awkwardness in the academic-industry relationship”.

She expected that future collaborations with industry will have the requirement to record and provide evidence of impact built into the design and conduct of any research.

“So this awkwardness should diminish,” Professor Dean said.

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