Research and industry funding

Corporate sponsors expect a mutually beneficial relationship, and terms and expectations must be clarified in advance.

January 25, 2008

The marriage of industry funds and academic research is not a one-sided affair. Corporate funders may have a different view of their relationship to you, your institution and your research.

“The partnership should be established on the basis of mutual interest,” says Richard Brown, director of the Council for Industry and Higher Education. “Otherwise you shouldn't enter the partnership in the first place.”

Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School of Economics, says you have to make these mutual interests explicit early on.

“If what the sponsor expects is that he or she can tell me what results they want, can use my research in the way he or she wants and can stop me publishing, and if what I want is academic freedom and no restrictions, then we aren't going to have a deal,” he says. “The time to find that out is at the initial meetings.”

He warns that the danger is the implicit assumptions both sides make. It is important to agree how the company concerned can use your name and how you can use the research you have carried out under their name. But you have to think the agreement through carefully, because sticking points often arise over aspects of the relationship that neither party had seen as a potential problem.

But academics should not assume that industry simply wants hard outputs, observes Brown. “Rolls-Royce says it goes to academics not just because the academics will solve their problems, but because they will come back and think of the next problem that Rolls-Royce didn't even know existed,” he says.

A good-practice guide published by the Association for University Research and Industry Links says that to gain the most from such a partnership, each partner should try to understand the other’s needs, motivations and culture.

John Humphreys, Greenwich University pro vice-chancellor, research and enterprise, says you must make sure that there is a good match between what interests the sponsor and what interests the university.

Fabien Petitcolas, head of intellectual capital development and community at Microsoft Research, says the main thing his company looks for is quality of research and relevance to the areas it is interested in.

"If it's just about giving the money for sponsorship of research and there's no interaction, there's not much benefit," he says. "We are looking for an intellectual contribution, and ideas develop through contact with other people."

Brown says relationships are built on individuals and, if the individual chemistry isn't working, it is often a good idea to pull out early.

But Bob Berry, Boots professor of accounting and finance at Nottingham University, says you have to work at these relationships. He writes an annual report about his activities for Boots, regularly visits the company and has occasional meals with executives to discuss what both sides are doing.

“The personnel you are working with in an organisation can change quite rapidly, and it's easy to become disconnected,” Berry says.

Both sides should also make sure that the relationship is based on more than just money. Boots is helpful in giving Berry access to the information he needs and answering questions he may have about the business world. In turn, Berry always pays serious attention to research requests Boots may have and has provided occasional corporate training.

Petitcolas says that Microsoft finds it helpful if academics explain where their research is being published or what conferences they are addressing, because “that's how we see they are doing something good with the funding we provide”.

Humphreys says you have to recognise that sponsoring is not the sponsor’s core business and that the onus is on the university to make the process easy. He says there should be one point of contact to co-ordinate all the sponsor's activities in that university. And a reporting-back structure is essential.

Berry has one final piece of advice. If asked by the press to comment on the company sponsoring him, he always declines.

Further information

Partnerships for Research and Innovation between Industry and Universities, published by the Association for University Research and Industry Links

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