UK: Academic-industry engagement on the rise

Academics in the United Kingdom are becoming increasingly engaged with industry, with research activity and funding among the leading motivating factors for the growing and more widely spread involvement. These are among the key findings of surveys of more than 6,000 academics. Respondents had been involved in creating nearly 700 companies in recent years.

A recently published report by the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) drew on surveys of academics funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and explored changes and links between academics and industry from 2004 and 2009.

While levels of engagement have increased over the past two years, barriers to engagement remain - though there were fewer obstacles articulated than during a previous similar survey in 2004 - according to The Republic of Engagement: Exploring UK academic attitudes to collaborating with industry and entrepreneurship.

The researchers found greater support was needed to assist academics working on activities involving industry, but that introducing a 'single engagement channel' was not a solution.

"Engagement of academics with industry is widespread, growing and underpinned by strong research," the report concluded, refuting perceptions that academics are generally not occupied with industry.

In fact, the entrepreneurial behaviour of those who responded to the surveys showed they had been involved in the creation of 685 different firms, almost half of which were product-based companies, in the past two to three years.

Furthermore, 16% of respondents indicated that they were on the brink of establishing new companies in conjunction with their industry partners.

In striving to understand the nature of engagement between the two parties, the researchers found that efforts to pressurise academics to increase their engagement with industry were based on "misleading notions" of current patterns of integration.

Rather, universities could be viewed as "engines for growth" in providing the critical know-how for knowledge-based industries to flourish.

The UK was found to be doing better than most other countries in terms of collaboration between academics and industry. The bulk of the engagement was in engineering and physical science, and it was mainly limited to conferences and once-off research agreements, such as joint research projects and contract research.

The level of collaboration, however, had increased in the past five years with academics, most of whom were male (88%) professors with an average age of 49 years, using more types of engagement more frequently than they did two years previously. Most had been involved in one or two projects (consultancy, funded research or contract research) with industry during the past two years.

The AIM researchers suggested that greater attention should be given to support engagement by individuals, because at present such ventures were not taken seriously enough. "They are perceived as useful for research, but given little or no value by departments or universities in their hiring and promotion policies."

The researchers suggested that this lack of support needed to be rectified by raising the profile of industry engagement, along with other support and training.

They examined the motivations, levels and barriers faced by academics, along with trust, career motivation and entrepreneurial behaviour. The effort to understand the nature of the links between the two as extensively as possible was made in order to offer possible lessons for government policy.

The research by AIM, which seeks to identify ways to enhance the competitiveness of the UK economy, further found that engagement was mainly individually motivated and that patterns of engagement differed from discipline to discipline.

Disciplines such as civil engineering required a tight integration between research and practice. In these areas, industrial practice might even be in advance of academic research, which is focused on probing causal mechanisms with which practising engineers may be less concerned.

In other disciplines, the mechanisms of transfer and exchange between research and practice were one step removed as academics were working on challenges that could take many years of research and could be far removed from potential application.

Despite the different patterns of engagements, there was widespread consensus as to the leading motivating factors for academics to link up with industry - development of their research and additional research income.

Other important motivating factors were raising awareness of problems that industry confronts and the need to build and sustain professional networks.

Interestingly, intellectual property, which is generally regarded as a contentious issue, was not perceived by academics as a barrier to engagement between the two parties.

There were also significant differences across disciplines in the levels of entrepreneurial activities, according to the report. In electrical and electronic engineering, 38% of those surveyed were involved in developing a new venture, against only 9% in mathematics.

"It is interesting to note that also 38% of the humanities faculty are involved in a commercial venture: if we analyse the business model of these firms, we can observe that they are predominantly consultancy-based."

Though the research found there was a drop in the number of barriers, perceived or otherwise, to collaboration compared to the 2004 survey, lack of time was the overriding barrier for academics' involvement with industry.

With teaching and other commitments they could not give as much time to industry as they would like. Lack of time was followed by a lack of resources. No longer was a lack of support from the university highlighted as a stumbling block.

But while academics believed things had improved, the report found a strong divergence of opinion between academics and industry about barriers to collaboration, pointing to the changing nature of exchange between universities and industry. The researchers cited this area as critical for further research.

As far as policy is concerned, the AIM researchers felt that policy measures needed to be taken to create more opportunities for academics working in fields with few entrepreneurial opportunities.

Creating more time, resources and support for academics to engage in venture creation, especially in disciplines where activities were uncommon, might yield the greatest return to policy efforts, the researchers concluded.