Nancy Rothwell

June 16, 2006

"Ivory towers v corporate boardrooms" was the topic of an open discussion meeting with young scientists that I was involved in at last year's British Association Festival of Science in Dublin. The task was to discuss the pros and cons of careers in academe and the commercial sector.

My role was obviously to iterate the merits of life in a university. Poor pay, long hours, growing administration, ever more demanding students, intense competition for funding and assessment of everything we do - these all made my job seem challenging and daunting. In the event, I spent a large portion of the meeting not trying to extol the virtues of life as an academic but rather "defending" a career in the corporate sector. This was in no way a failure of my platform partner. He was an accomplished scientist who had risen to the top of a research career in industry yet retained strong academic activities and partnerships. He gave an eloquent explanation of the excitement of drug discovery and teamworking with talented scientists from many disciplines to bring a new therapy to patient benefit. Admittedly, he didn't mention the company car or the share options, but the presentation was to me a fair exposition of the real values of working in a major pharmaceutical company.

The audience was clearly unconvinced. The questions ranged from a strong moral stance to extreme naivety. Comments included: "But you have to do exactly what you are told in a company", "You can't question decisions in industry", "Why don't companies like yours give your drugs free to Third World companies?", "I would never 'sell my soul' to work in industry". The reality is that many of the young scientists at the meeting will have a career in industry, hopefully without any deals with the devil.

This negative attitude towards the commercial sector isn't a strange quirk of the Irish, or even, it seems, the young. Similar views have been expressed in other forums, some including quite senior academic researchers. In spite of this, our commercial equivalents don't seem to do so badly. In my experience, they attract some of the smartest people and nurture them well. But given the importance of commercial research, and indeed its major investment in research (including in academe) in the UK, this apparent negativity within universities is a cause for some concern.

This, together with a mutual misunderstanding of the goals of the two worlds, may contribute to long-standing divisions of views and even some real barriers.

Numerous government papers and funding incentives continually encourage us to engage with the commercial sector and to exploit our discoveries. Yet it is not uncommon to find academics who believe that commercial partnership means you get lots of money (or normally not that much money) to give up your ideas to a company (that has little or no real interest in the research), and then they make much more money. In my experience, this is rare, and it's certainly no basis for a successful partnership. Perhaps we should not be too surprised by the rather negative view of academics who are trained in academe by academics. We all aim to bring up our charges "in our own image". Most of us want our PhD students and postdocs to end up like us - as successful academics. The reality is, of course, that this isn't possible - unless we train just one or two young charges each. Many will go into other careers, often very successfully.

My own interaction with industry began with a PhD (as a collaborative studentship with Unilever), during which I spent as much time in a company as I did in my host university and benefited from its significant resources and many discussions with excellent scientists. Since then I've had numerous collaborations, some with and some without funding. All except a small handful have been enormously beneficial. The less successful collaborations normally resulted when companies changed direction or my contact left. But this can happen with academic collaborations. Quite often those interactions where "no money changes hands" are the most valuable because of the exchange of ideas, valuable materials and array of techniques that remain a dream for most of us in universities.

In fact, many of my PhD students do go into industry. I used to consider it a failure that they didn't follow my footsteps into academe. They seem to be happy and normally earn more than I do. Perhaps I will soon be able to make a real comparison of ivory towers and corporate boardroom as I have joined a major pharmaceutical company as a non-executive director on its main board. It's part time, so I'm not giving up my academic position.

Dame Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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