Research intelligence: Getting more 'D' out of R&D

Labour plans a series of innovation centres to exploit the commercial benefits of UK research. Hannah Fearn reports

April 15, 2010

The week before the Labour government unveiled the final Budget of its third term in office, a small group of vice-chancellors were called into No 10. They were there to discuss how to turn university research into economy-boosting business.

When the Budget was unveiled, the fruit of these discussions became clear - the government announced major investment to support knowledge exchange and innovation.

The centrepiece of this announcement was the publication of the Hauser review of research commercialisation in the UK. The study, by Hermann Hauser, the Cambridge-based technology entrepreneur, recommends that the UK follow Germany's lead by creating a set of innovation centres to commercialise the UK's research output.

It says that the UK has a science capability second only to the US, but that it fails to translate it into world-beating new industry.

The proposed centres, modelled on Germany's network of Fraunhofer Institutes, would be themed on areas of applied science considered by the government to be central to economic growth. They would take new discoveries and help commercialise them at the concept stage: from there, industry could take the inventions to the market.

Announcing the government's intention to make good on the report's recommendations, Lord Mandelson said: "Too often in this country we have been brilliant at research and let others walk away with the commercial benefits of development. If we are to develop new industrial capabilities in Britain, we have to get more 'D' out of our R&D."

The First Secretary, who is responsible for the academy and industry, said the centres would help bridge "the gap between research and the market".

The Technology Strategy Board is now tasked with turning the proposals into a plan that the next government, of whatever stripe, can roll out rapidly.

Iain Gray, chief executive of the TSB, said it was well placed to carry out this work.

"We provide the link between business and the academic and public sector organisations that should be consulted in an exercise like this," he explained.

Competition

But the mooted centres would join an already busy marketplace. Most universities now have a technology transfer office, staffed by trained teams, and knowledge exchange is becoming a profession in its own right. Academics are increasingly proficient at brokering relationships with business.

About 10 years ago, the UK's Faraday Centres were launched, touted then as the answer to the Fraunhofer Institutes and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. When the TSB was formed, these centres were folded into its remit, and most have now become knowledge transfer networks (KTNs) that bring scholars and businesses closer together.

The latest government plans have had a mixed reception. Some fear a new layer of bureaucracy could create confusion, not clarity, among businesses.

Siobhan Jordan, director of Interface, a not-for-profit organisation that links academics and businesses across Scotland, said creating another middleman may not be the best way to proceed.

"There is already a complex landscape, and this would add to that," she said. "That the government recognises that we need to develop these technologies should be welcome, but whether these centres are the right way - another layer on top of all the activity that's already going on - I'm not sure. I'm not sure that's what industry wants."

Philip Graham, executive director of the Association of University Research and Industry Links, agreed that while new approaches were of interest, "they should not be more bureaucratic than what has gone before".

He added: "Things don't necessarily cut and paste between countries - what may be good for one may not be good for another."

Indeed, academics at a recent European Universities Association conference noted that their German counterparts were frequently critical of the Fraunhofer Institutes.

Meanwhile, Mr Graham said, the UK was doing well with its existing resources. "We're the best in Europe in knowledge transfer. We have the best results per dollar or pound," he added.

Others took a different view. Bill O'Neill, director of the Centre for Industrial Photonics at the University of Cambridge, said: "We don't have anything like the centres that are being proposed. The KTNs are just talking shops."

He said middlemen would in fact be welcomed: "Academics should be doing teaching and research, and now they have to engage with industry. That's not necessarily the best use of their time."

When and whether the TSB's final proposals will be completed and rolled out depends on the wishes of whichever party holds the keys to power after the election.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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