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We Must Break Down Barriers to University-Business Collaboration

15/07/2015 16:12 BST | Updated 14/07/2016 10:59 BST

The UK has a world-leading research base, and when businesses and universities work together, every one of us ultimately benefits.

From driving economic growth and productivity improvements, to speeding up the time it takes for new technology or medical advances to reach the market, successful business-university partnerships can improve our lives in any number of ways.

For the businesses involved, it is an opportunity to further their knowledge in developing new techniques or technologies, extending the capabilities and expertise available to the firm. And for academics, working with businesses provides an opportunity to address challenging research questions with real-world applications, to see their research have tangible impacts, and to gain access to new skills, data or equipment. Government has a crucial role in fostering the conditions under which these collaborations can happen at scale and deliver lasting impacts, and it recognises the need to make these connections easier and more effective. In 2014, I was asked by the then Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, to lead a review examining how government can support the development of more effective collaborations between businesses and university researchers in the UK.

I published the results earlier this month in the Dowling Review, which demonstrates that there is a significant opportunity to encourage these collaborations by making them easier, providing the right incentives, and communicating the benefits to help establish a culture of trusted, prosperous partnerships.

The UK already has many successful business-university collaborations. The 'Impact' case studies submitted to the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment provide the evidence. These describe the impacts of university research on non-academic 'users' and they provide a striking illustration of the differential levels of engagement by companies -- some companies were cited over and over again in the case studies - while others, of similar size and focus have much lower representation. It is clear that the UK is not reaping the full potential of connecting businesses with the UK's excellent academic research base.

The Review called on substantial evidence from businesses and universities, and a key theme to emerge from industry was that the complexity of existing support mechanisms creates frustration and confusion. Innovation is a complex, non-linear activity, but the array of organisations, structures and schemes involved in the UK government's support for collaborative research and innovation presents a barrier to businesses, particularly smaller companies. Streamlining the funding system could be achieved by consolidating and reducing the overall number of schemes and by simplifying the interface between the user and the system. I recommend that the Government does both.

Government could also give clearer guidance to businesses on how to best use research and development tax credits and how these interplay with State Aid restrictions.

While the researchers we consulted were enthusiastic about research collaborations with businesses, they often felt that their universities did not recognise their successes. Recruitment and promotion criteria within some universities can effectively disadvantage academics who have collaborated with industry or created innovations with commercial potential that they wish to pursue. In the UK we can be a bit dismissive about research that actually has an application, but in reality such use-inspired research can be truly excellent. We need a change of culture in our universities to support and encourage strong, lasting partnerships between industry and academia for the benefit of wider society.

People are central to successful collaborations and they need support. We need to improve ways to identify partners, encourage mobility between businesses and academia, and to recognise the efforts of people involved in collaborations.

Students should also be encouraged to develop business awareness at an early stage of their research careers.

Universities' policies on technology transfer were also seen to be a barrier to effective collaborations. I also strongly urge universities to set targets focused on long-term gains to get the most out of their intellectual property, including patents, rather than simply short-term financial gains. There is currently too much pressure on university technology transfer offices to generate a quick return, to the detriment of long-term commercialisation with wider economic benefits and longer-term benefit to the university.

While it is reasonable for academic institutions to want to profit from their intellectual property, they must also recognise their responsibility to harness their research for the benefit of wider society.

Solutions to everyday problems could be sitting in a lab right now, but without the conversation with industry, they could be missed. It is imperative that we enable more businesses to utilise the knowledge and skills that lie within our universities, and I hope to see government taking action on the findings of the review to help this happen.