Should universities lead innovation?

In his report commissioned by UK Business Secretary Vince Cable, GlaxoSmithKline Chief Executive Sir Andrew Witty positions universities at the heart of the United Kingdom’s industrial and innovation strategy for the next decade.

The report, entitled Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, proposes a number of mechanisms through which universities can lead the UK into an “invention revolution to rival the transformation witnessed in the 19th century”.

Witty calls on the higher education sector to fully engage with ‘third mission’ activities while recommending that organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, or LEPs, and UK Trade and Industry should be restructured to support it.

Witty’s report paints the UK as a country that hosts world-leading research expertise within its universities, but which often fails to translate that expertise into economic growth. He is critical of a system he sees as too focused on local growth, leading to duplicated initiatives and a muddled national approach.

Furthermore, he sees universities as being underutilised in developing economic strategies and describes how the opaque research landscape hinders engagement by small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, charities, LEPs and overseas partners.

Not everything is bad – through a number of case studies, Witty highlights existing good practices and his recommendations outline how they can be turned into a national strategy for innovation and economic growth.

Arrow Projects

Witty’s headline recommendation is his ‘Arrow Projects’, which he believes will make the UK a global leader in a number of technologies.

Over the course of the next decade these Arrow Projects should be created in key sectors aligned to those supported by the UK’s Industrial Strategy and Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts' ‘Eight Great’ technologies.

Witty envisions the projects as the means of harnessing the world-leading research expertise held within the UK’s universities and translating it into economic growth.

Vast in scale – each, he believes, should have access to £1 billion (US$1.6 billion) in funding – the Arrow Projects will place a university at the tip of a large consortium, with the arrowhead corresponding to growing relevant economic activity in that particular industrial sector.

By focusing on the emerging technologies in which the UK is already strong, Witty expects this investment to allow the country to become the global leader in these markets.

University-led consortia are not a new idea in the UK: there are plenty of existing schemes funded through the Technology Strategy Board, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the European Union, among others, which have similar aims to the proposed Arrow Projects.

In fact, according to Witty, there are simply too many schemes, too small in scale and not always matched to economic strategy. He calls for a simplified funding environment to improve accessibility and minimise management and administration.

However, the scale of his Arrow Projects means significant management and administration, particularly at the lead university where a significant proportion of its research and administrative capacity will have to be channelled into the project.

Putting resources into managing Arrow Projects is undoubtedly part of what Witty sees as the need for universities to fully engage with the ‘Third Mission’ activity of wealth creation through knowledge exchange.

He is hardly the first to make such a suggestion: UK universities have been moving into the commercial sphere for several decades, although they are still playing catch-up compared to many international competitors.

Support for the SME sector

Witty’s particular focus is on how universities can support the UK’s relatively poor performing innovative SME sector.

He argues that institutions should seek to engage every innovative SME in their region, allowing companies to grow by accessing the research expertise and global networks that each university possesses.

There are challenges to achieving successful university-SME engagement. Witty points out that SMEs find universities inaccessible; he could have written ‘slow-moving’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

Aligning the short-term needs and fast-paced innovation in an SME with slower, longer-term academic research programmes can be difficult. This might explain why, when it comes to SME engagement, many of the UK’s research-intensive universities are outperformed by their younger, post-1992 counterparts.

As Witty suggests, creating a single gateway for SMEs at each university is desirable. His recommendations for an increase in funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund to support innovation programmes and greater interactions between LEPs, UK Trade and Industry and universities are also welcome.

Although universities can and do form SME networks, resources would be better used it they can work alongside organisations already involved in the sector.

Research excellence

Witty is keen that universities and companies are incentivised to collaborate with each other and that barriers to engagement are removed.

Alongside increased funding, other suggestions include an annual, national report on third mission activities, an open online gateway for companies to access information on UK research programmes and an increase in the weighting of impact in the next Research Excellence Framework, or REF, to 25%.

Given the controversy around the introduction of impact in REF 2014, the accuracy and transparency around its assessment this year will be important if its weighting is to be increased.

Witty’s review is not necessarily revolutionary. UK universities have already been moving in the direction of Witty’s 'Arrow' – business engagement and technology transfer offices are now widespread across the UK higher education sector. His recommendations clearly aim to focus these ‘Third Mission’ activities further towards developing local and national economic growth.

However, balance is key. Witty believes that economic engagement and excellence in research and teaching are not exclusive, but can help catalyse each other.

A ‘picking winners’ approach is fine as long as it does not overlook the types of ‘blue sky’ research that discovers new technologies and encourages the most creative minds to stay in academic research.

* Alasdair Taylor currently works at the University of Nottingham, creating academic-industrial links around research into sustainable technologies. In particular, he works on projects designed to assist local SMEs. Opinions expressed are his own. More information can be found on his blog and Alasdair can be followed @AWTaylor83.