'Myth' of ivory tower under siege as survey shows industry links are strong

June 25, 2009

The notion of the ivory tower is under threat as academics embrace links with industry as a central tenet of their profession - and not just in the hard sciences.

The largest survey of academic engagement with business has found that knowledge exchange is now a major part of university life, with the social sciences having as strong a link with business as physics.

The study, based on a poll of 22,500 academics working in the UK and set to be released fully in the autumn, found that despite received wisdom, business links are not limited to those working in the so-called "STEM" subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths.

Rather, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered "hidden knowledge exchange" in a range of disciplines.

While nearly 75 per cent of academics in engineering and material sciences collaborate with the private sector, in the social sciences, about 40 per cent have similar links - the same proportion as among physicists. In the arts and humanities, the proportion is more than 30 per cent.

The public, charity and non-profit sectors were also identified as important partners. More than 75 per cent of academics in health sciences are collaborating with the public sector, and 60 per cent are doing so with the third sector.

In the social sciences, 60 per cent of academics are working with public sector partners and 45 per cent with the third sector, while in the arts and humanities, 45 per cent are collaborating with both.

The study found that very few academics in the UK are involved in creating spin-off companies or registering licences or patents. Instead, most are involved in consultancy, providing informal advice and producing joint publications.

Michael Kitson, senior lecturer at Cambridge's Judge Business School and leader of the project, said the findings punctured "the myth of the ivory tower".

"The survey results show that a narrow focus on technology transfer misses the many forms of interaction that take place through informal mechanisms outside the 'usual-suspect' disciplines," he said.

Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, said the study demonstrated that knowledge transfer "is starting to get really embedded into the university culture".

Mr Kitson added: "There is significant diversity between and within universities; we should not forget that many academics can be very successful without the need to engage and collaborate with others."

The research also found that many small businesses still lack the resources and skills necessary to interact with universities.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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