Industry ‘increasingly outsourcing’ research to academia

Decline of corporate discovery programmes could narrow scope of innovation, scholars warn

December 8, 2017
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Businesses around the globe are outsourcing scientific research to academia as they cut back on their in-house discovery programmes, latest figures suggest.

The number of collaborative papers in the Nature Index involving corporations and academic or government institutions has more than doubled in five years, from 12,672 in 2012 to 25,962 in 2016. Close to 90 per cent of the papers with corporate authors published during this period in the 68 high-quality natural science journals covered by the index had a co-author in either an academic or government institute.

A new supplement, Nature Index 2017 Science Inc, says that these partnerships are often mutually beneficial, as businesses can gain access to high-quality expertise at a low cost and cash-strapped universities welcome extra funds as well as networking and potential job links for graduates.

Forthcoming research by individuals at the University of Southern California and London Business School, highlighted in the supplement, indicates that academic researchers are more productive after they partner with a company.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of the shift from corporate to academic research, however. Writing in the supplement, economists from Duke University and the University of East Anglia warn that the withdrawal of large US corporations from research could narrow the scope of innovation.

“It isn’t that research is becoming less relevant for innovation. It’s that companies are just not as willing to invest in the long slog of science,” say Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon and Andrea Patacconi.

Duke researchers recently found that the average US corporation published 29 papers a year in the Web of Science database in 1980, but that this had fallen to 12 by 2006.

“The decline of research produced by large firms could pose problems for society,” the economists add, since the type and scale of research typically conducted by big, wealthy corporations is difficult to replicate in universities and smaller companies.

“The departure of great corporations from the annals of scientific discovery could also lead to the retreat of spin-offs that contribute greatly to economic growth and social welfare,” they continue.

According to the latest data, US corporations represent almost half (49.3 per cent) of all global corporate research tracked by the Nature Index. Japan is second, with a 10.7 per cent share, followed by the UK (6.1 per cent), China (5 per cent) and Germany (5 per cent).

David Swinbanks, founder of the Nature Index, said that the dramatic shift towards greater collaboration between industry and academia could be attributed to increased “outsourcing” of research by businesses, but also “pressure from governments on universities and public research institutions to produce research of more immediate relevance to society and commercial applications”.

“While closer collaboration between industry and academia is desirable, the longer-term concern is that it could shift the balance between basic and applied research in research institutions,” he added.

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