Warning over ‘biased results’ of industry-funded research

Europe-wide temperature check of university-business interactions unearths concerns over loss of curiosity-led research 

March 9, 2019
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European universities must be watchful that their increasing dependence on industry for research funding does not lead to “biased results” and the undermining of other “curiosity-driven” scholarship, a new report says.

The caution is referenced in an extensive report undertaken by the European University Association, The Role of Universities in Regional Innovation Ecosystems.

Nine universities from nine European countries were selected to reflect a diverse snapshot of regional landscapes, with each institution providing an in-depth account of the kinds of interactions they had with local industry partners.

Universities were selected on the basis that they were “known to be competitive” in research and innovation, and were asked in-depth questions about their particular challenges, assets and strategies in this area.

Report author Sybille Reichert, former chancellor of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, concludes that in all cases, “universities have seen an increase of industry-funded research, but not in public funding for curiosity-driven research”.

Universities across Europe face increasing pressure to work more collaboratively with private companies in order to meet national research and economic goals. Since 2017, the UK government has urged universities to follow its industrial strategy agenda, and will assess institutions’ commercial collaborations under a new knowledge exchange framework.

The research culture is changing, Dr Reichert notes, but the impact this had on funding balances was seen as “a potential problem for future innovation” by universities but also by businesses.

“There are fears that increasing dependence on industry-funded research will lead to a higher risk of biased results as well as potential of scientific breakthroughs driven by curiosity-based research being undermined, which in turn would prevent more radical forms of innovation,” she says.

Where once basic and applied research were widely understood as separate practices, the two approaches are now “generally seen as part of a mutually reinforcing whole”, Dr Reichert notes. As such, innovation was no longer viewed as a “linear process” and collaborators recognise that differing approaches could “stimulate and enhance” each other.

Given that many university-industry collaborative projects are formed under a requirement to develop a specific, commercial product, however, “curiosity-based” work risked being ignored, should governments view successful industry collaborations as an excuse to relax their own support.

Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at EUA, argued that, overall, the report’s conclusions were positive. “University-industry relations are positive and developing to a more strategic level,” he told Times Higher Education, adding, “we do not have evidence that there are widespread fears about biased results”.

He acknowledged that loss of “curiosity-based” research presented “a worry for many places” visited for the study, however.

“We know from other work that these indicators [such as patents and research contracts] are used in many countries across Europe for assessing or even funding universities, and the discourse is certainly there across the board that research should be almost immediately usable for commercial purposes,” he said.

“There are a lot of political ambitions out there supporting disruptive innovation. However, if you want that disruptive innovation, you cannot demand immediate impact and measure the patents and research contracts for success…you have to have stable funding and assessment of research that allows space for curiosity.

“We need to better acknowledge that having a knowledge base driven by curiosity is something that needs appropriate investment.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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