Warning to keep eye on academic consultancy

May 6, 2005

Academics should be carefully managed to ensure that their external consultancy work does not interfere with their lecturing and research duties, conference delegates have been told.

Laura MacDonald, business and commercialisation manager at Edinburgh University, told the spring conference of the Association for University and Research and Industry Links (Auril) that universities had to be proactive in managing their academics' activities.

She said consultancy activity was generally seen as a good thing - not least because it was lucrative - but there were concerns that academics may be "feathering their own nests" at their institutions' expense.

There were also fears that through consultancy the interaction between academics and business might lead to "back-door leakage" of university research, as industrialists wandered unchecked around labs.

Ms MacDonald said she had been intrigued to find that a number of her counterparts in North America viewed institutions supporting consultancy as "anathema" because of the potential threats. These ranged from distracting academics from their core research and teaching to research leakage.

She said: "A consultancy relationship enhances access by a company (that could be) a back- door way into what is going on elsewhere in the department or the academic's research group. Conflicts of interest may arise."

Ms MacDonald also warned that institutions' insurers could be alarmed by the prospect of vicarious liability from advice given or work undertaken through consultancy.

"The university doesn't want to be exposed to claims for negligent advice - '(the consultant) advised us on flood risk and now the buildings we put up have all been swept away by the river'."

Ms MacDonald said that most UK universities were alive to both the pros and cons of consultancy work.

She said: "Transferring knowledge for income is in the interests of academics and can be in the interests of institutions. The overall approach needs to be supportive - carrots rather than imposing penalties on the people doing consultancy work."

While many institutions were taking a proactive stance and tackling potential threats while reaping the undoubted benefits, she recommended setting a limit on the time that staff could spend annually on consultancy.

This would avoid resources being diverted from core work.

Different institutions took different approaches to personal gain, with some taking a percentage of consultancy fees.

Edinburgh used a percentage of the fee to extend professional indemnity cover to ensure that it could not be sued over consultancy work, Ms MacDonald added.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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