A report has served to shine a light on the “hidden links” between universities and businesses that are not measured by official knowledge transfer analyses.
These links are often found outside university engineering and science departments, and their invisibility points to the need for new ways to measure engagement.
The survey – Connecting with the Ivory Tower: Business Perspectives on Knowledge Exchange in the UK – quizzes more than 2,500 businesses and says that only 5 to 10 per cent of firms report intellectual property agreements as a constraint to interacting with universities, despite the policy attention directed at the issue.
Alan Hughes, director of the UK Innovation Research Centre and co- author of the report, said it was important for businesses to get such agreements right. But focusing policy on the area could lead to the “neglect” of the much wider and richer relationships that businesses have with universities.
These relationships often fall outside the domain of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects that usually involve intellectual property. Businesses might work with universities to develop codes of fair practice with philosophers, for example, or draw on social anthropology to understand the different cultures in which they operate.
Professor Hughes added: “We find that academics outside engineering have extensive connections.”
If such links were neglected, it could lead to a shift in funding away from these disciplines and towards STEM, he explained (although at the moment there was “not much” evidence of this shift occurring).
“It is much more at the level of rhetoric and what conditions the public debate,” he added.
Birgitte Andersen, director of the Big Innovation Centre, set up by Lancaster University and the Work Foundation, said that there was a case for broadening the policy agenda beyond STEM.
She added that the methods traditionally used to measure university performance were skewed towards capturing action in those subjects, which figure strongly in research and development spending, licensing income, generating academic papers and producing companies.
The big problem with the indicators was that they failed to take into account “collaborative innovation activities”, said Professor Andersen.
“We need to capture the softer side of knowledge transfer between business schools and businesses because it is a different type of interaction,” she explained.
Research conducted by the Big Innovation Centre has found that academics do not do well solving specific business and socio-economic challenges, she said.
This was a product of the type of policies in place to support university-business relations, she added. From 1990 to 2010, policymakers focused on building organisations to link universities with businesses, such as technology transfer offices and the Technology Strategy Board.
“We need to move away from an institution to a people approach,” Professor Andersen said.
“It is not the technology transfer office trying to sell a technology: now it is academics coming together and solving problems in business.”