Work the room? That's not my job - I'm a researcher, not a seller

Two-fifths of academics surveyed resent pressure to commercialise their work. David Matthews reports

January 26, 2012

A significant number of academics feel it is not part of their job to help businesses bring their research to market, according to an investigation into attitudes to knowledge transfer.

Such activity is high on the political agenda, with David Willetts, the universities and science minister, challenging institutions to increase their income from knowledge transfer by 10 per cent over the next three years.

However, scholars often think they do not have the skills to network with the business leaders who could turn their research into a new product or service, according to a PhD thesis written by Kristel Miller, a teaching fellow in management at the University of Abertay Dundee.

About 40 per cent of the researchers questioned who were working with the university to commercialise their work said they felt they had been "forced" to do so, Ms Miller told Times Higher Education.

"They didn't really feel like it was part of their job - their job was teaching and research," she said, quoting one interviewee who said they "didn't know how to sell".

Part of the problem was that many of those interviewed did not feel they had the time or the skills to speak to these "industry players", said Ms Miller.

She found that older academics in particular were likely to have the view that "the networking aspect wasn't their job".

This was partly because older academics had more commitments, such as families, and also because younger researchers had entered academia at a time when there was greater expectation that they would be involved with industry, Ms Miller suggested.

However, she emphasised that the majority of those she spoke to "had a love of research and wanted to see it commercialised", taking the view it had "no point unless it has an impact on the community".

Ms Miller said she sympathised with academics who did not view knowledge transfer as part of their role.

"It's hard to do everything," she said, noting that time pressures were a constant concern among the 62 researchers she interviewed at a single unnamed institution.

She suggested that scholars should be introduced to business leaders at workshops and given better training on how to handle the knowledge-transfer process.

At the Engage HEI 2012 conference held in London earlier this month, Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, criticised those at the institution who said a university's obligation was "to be an academic institution above anything else".

He said that a "surprising number of authorities within Oxford" were of the opinion that universities would "get into trouble" if they did not maintain a predominantly academic focus.

"I've heard one influential person in the university say that a university has no role whatsoever in any story about Britain's economic rebalancing," he said, but contended that this was a minority view that was now in decline.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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