Hostage to a silent revolution

August 18, 1995

There is a silent revolution going on in the research councils, receiving too little comment from academia though it threatens to undermine research objectivity, thus potentially siphoning research monies away from universities directly into industry.

The strength of academic research is, or should be, its objectivity achieved through being independent, that is having a certain distance from the subject studied and from particular associated lobby groups. Otherwise it would become confused with consultancy. As a result, what is produced may be what is least expected or even (and this is often the best research) what no one really wants to hear).

Programmes like the Innovative Manufacturing Initiative of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, however, make it more difficult for researchers to operate objectively. For it is a condition of these programmes that researchers link up with an industrial partner/company. The problem is that such "employer-led" initiatives, just because they are "employer-led", are devised with apparently little conception of the actual nature of much research activity or of the existing degree of cooperation which operates between academic researchers and "industry".

Just imagine some of the practical difficulties. I set up a partnership with Firm A, to conduct research involving interviews with Firms B, C and D. I cannot tell B, C and D that I am in cahoots with Firm A, otherwise they certainly would not agree to cooperate with their competitor, Firm A. Nor can I tell Firm A who Firms B, C and D are because I have promised them anonymity.

Most of my research is at an European level which complicates the position still further. I was recently refused access to a firm in Germany, being accused of "industrial espionage", though the project was sponsored by a very respectable British charitable research foundation. This type of accusation would, however, have some justification if I were so closely allied with Firm A.

In our current projects, we have very good collaboration from firms in terms of giving us open access to information and data. This is just because they know that these will be treated in confidence and that the results of our analysis will not be directly associated with them. In return, they receive copies of our report or a summary of this and are invited to any seminar/conference organised to disseminate the results. Their degree of cooperation springs from a common concern with the same problems and with, therefore, a need to have an impartial picture and evaluation of what is going on. It is doubtful that similar levels of cooperation could be achieved through a "partnership" arrangement, ie, this would tend to deter rather than help cooperation.

I have received no satisfactory answer from the research council regarding these concerns. Yet increasingly the subject of research on which we are engaged is most appropriate to such programmes. If we participate, all I can do is to draw a clear line as to how far I can collaborate with Firm A without jeopardising the research itself. This would have to be largely on an advisory basis, without any too detailed discussion on, for instance, the sample of firms, the actual survey work conducted, and particular aspects of the evaluation. You wonder then why a "partnership" arrangement is necessary, rather than the well-established format of an advisory committee.

The research council's ostensible reasons for these initiatives - which are planned to extend to more areas and perhaps also to the ESRC - is to make its research more relevant to the needs of industry and, thereby, also to improve its value and dissemination. The first danger in this is that short-term interests predominate and long-term so-called "blue-sky" research is ruled out as being without concrete results or "deliverables". The second danger, which is more and more apparent, is that emphasis is increasingly laid not on research as such but on development, that is on the development of new products for the market.

Linda Clarke Senior research fellow University of Westminster

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