Tech transfer blinds industry to wider academic acumen

Product focus stifles knowledge transmission to commercial world, says CIHE. Hannah Fearn writes

June 5, 2008

Attempts to improve the wider transmission of knowledge from academe into the business world are being hampered by a narrow focus in policy circles on technology, according to a draft report from the Council for Industry and Higher Education.

Government policy on knowledge transfer has focused too heavily on technology and has ignored many of the ways in which universities and business together influence innovation and business performance, the report says.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Philip Ternouth, the CIHE's associate director, said the report showed that academics were pivotal to the success of relationships between companies and institutions.

"The academics are most important in developing university's relationships with business," he said. "There has been a lot of focus on a really simple model whereby technology goes into product. If you actually look at it, it's a lot more complex than that."

According to the report, which was unveiled at a seminar in London last week, the most valuable relationships "stem from the contributions of knowledge and expertise and the ability of academics to take a wider view". It says: "Technology-based companies may not need assistance from university researchers in the development of their technology, but may benefit from marketing and management science."

The report adds that the focus on technology transfer was "too narrow ... (It) ignores many of the mechanisms through which universities and business together influence innovation and business perfor-mance".

"It ignores some of the greatest challenges and difficulties ... concerned with absorbing and embedding knowledge within businesses. There is now a need to broaden the knowledge exchange policy agenda."

Philip Esler, chief executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, said businesses were looking for far more from universities than technological expertise.

"Technology-driven firms are saying: 'We don't need HEI help in relationship to technology, give us the other stuff.' Firms were more interested in capability and process than in specific quantifiable outcomes," he explained.

But Professor Esler said there was more research to be done to understand why British institutions still place so little value on knowledge transfer, compared to their US counterparts. "I think that's hugely important," he said.

Cathy Garner, chief executive of strategic partnership body Manchester: Knowledge Capital, welcomed the report's findings. "It should be that we are no longer talking about patenting and licensing, but we're looking at a great breadth of knowledge exchange. That has important implications," she said.

"We need to understand this breadth and we should stop counting things such as patents, which may not be driving the right behaviour. The way we have modelled ourselves, on a paradigm that came out of the US, is not actually recognising the way that business are embracing innovation."

Dr Garner said that small and medium-size enterprises were least engaged with universities because they did not find them to be welcoming places. "The study leaves me challenged about what we can do to support the SMEs ... with a much greater ability to interact.

"I think importantly we must, in the UK, become much better at supporting porosity between universities and businesses."

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