Markets need buyers

March 24, 2000

Michael Rennie ("A waste of good ideas", THES, March 17) is absolutely right: there is nothing more to be gained from putting additional pressure on overworked academic innovators to push their discoveries out to market.

What we need is a stronger sense of pull from industry. Markets make no sense without buyers, and they need to be informed buyers.

We have too little investment in internal industrial R&D - particularly in the engineering sector - for sufficient companies to act as "intelligent customers" to understand their own needs and potential for innovation and to be able to assess the value of the science base's outputs. The Department for Trade and Industry's own data show that the R&D investment:sales ratio in the UK is about half that of the US, Japan, France or Germany.

Our recent work under the Higher Education Funding Council for England fundamental review of research policy and funding has demonstrated that there is a good correlation across UK HEIs between publicly funded research and the acquisition of industrial research funding. Our data also show that, contrary to apparent belief among DTI civil servants, such synergy is in fact much weaker in the US. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the oft-cited example of positive association between fundamental research and its application but, even in the US system, MIT is a fantastic outlier and not a paradigm. MIT is not the right model for the UK to copy, although our own outliers - such as Imperial College and Cambridge - can reasonably claim kinship.

Rather than putting pressure on universities to take their wares to an empty market, government might more usefully focus on putting resources in the hands of potential buyers. What is needed is a much expanded and better developed scheme akin to the European CRAFT programme that would put funds in the hands of industries specifically for research work with HEIs. As Sir Richard Sykes (chairman of Glaxo Wellcome) has pointed out, Dearing's recommendation 34 suggested something similar.

Government must look more closely at its own failure to take advice and engage directly with research users. Successive governments' obsession with the supposed failings of the providers is readily explained: academics are easy targets in the public sector. Foresight is a diversionary party from which policy-makers themselves are missing. It is time now to develop the joined-up policy and engage with harder, less malleable and more demanding targets.

Jonathan Adams

Dean for strategic development, Higher Education Policy Unit, University of Leeds

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