Sectorally mobile researchers are ‘change agents’

Danish universities need to do more to promote sectoral mobility of researchers (between universities and the private sector), which fosters increased innovation, knowledge turnover, technological development and relevance for research and education, according to the findings of a major investigation by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy or DFiR.

But it says there are difficult barriers to overcome.

The investigation found that sectorally mobile researchers are “change agents” at universities ensuring relevance to the outside world, they “increase research quality” by transferring knowledge to and from industry, and “increase innovation in both sectors by means of creating spin-outs and patents”, but they provide “equally beneficial effects in terms of being role models for students, PhD students and post-docs”.

Currently Denmark is among the best in Europe regarding researcher sectoral mobility, but this is due to having relatively younger researchers, notably PhD graduates and post-docs, moving from universities to the private workforce.

But there are barriers among established researchers at lecturer and professor levels that make them move less between sectors than their younger colleagues, in spite of several reports saying that the market is ready to accept them.

These are the key findings of DFiR’s ‘Research Mobility between Sectors’ project, which commissioned several investigations during 2016-17, and published recommendations on 9 December.

The project arose from DFiR’s ‘World-Class Knowledge’ project which highlighted that Danish research was of a world-class standard, but also concluded that there was a potential for improvement, notably in research-based innovation, as reported by University World News.

The DFiR ‘Research Mobility between Sectors’ project had four elements.

First, the analysis company IRIS Group carried out a quantitative investigation in several research institutions and universities in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland during the period July to October 2016, resulting in the report, Analysis of Sector Mobility – Effects, drivers, and good practices in Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with an appendix of case studies looking for best practices.

Second, DFiR arranged a series of meetings between interested partners, universities and industry.

Third, the analysis bureau Norstat in September 2016 carried out a survey on sectoral mobility.

And fourth, DFiR presented an overview of available research reports and literature and mapped out the structure of scientific positions at Danish universities.

The evidence presented on the strong position of young researchers included the findings of a new study on the private workforce from 2016 that showed approximately 20,000 researchers with PhDs were working in the private sector, which is approximately the same as the number of researchers working at adjunct level and above at Danish universities.

The number of researchers privately employed with a PhD degree has increased by around 6,000 in 2008-14.

But the Norstat survey found that only 600 researchers (in exclusive clinical positions and part-time positions) had been mobile between sectors in a three-year period compared with the total of 6,800 established researchers in 2015.

The distribution of the sectorally mobile researchers between different research institutions demonstrates that:
  • • Approximately one-third of Danish university institutes do not have any mobile researchers,

  • • Around half of the institutes have between one and 10 sector mobile researchers.

  • • Only a small group of institutes have more than 10 mobile researchers.
The DFiR report concluded that while young researchers in Denmark have a relatively high level of sector mobility in an international context, the established researchers rarely switch their full-time position in a private company or at a university with a position in another sector.

Difficult barriers

However, it also advised that the limited degree of sector mobility among established researchers can be attributed to a number of barriers which DFiR deems would be “fairly difficult and potentially unwise to remove”.

“These barriers relate not only to conditions for rewarding researchers in the form of appointments, peer review and application assessments, but also to differences in salary between the two sectors.

“The degree of cross-sector mobility among established researchers is therefore most likely to remain relatively low.”

DFiR set out to identify whether there are genuine positive benefits to be gained for both sectors when researchers move across sectors and partly to see whether corresponding positive benefits can be achieved by other means than a permanent switch between sectors.

“This could take the form, for example, of shared positions or shared appointments, both as shorter or longer periods of employment in other sectors under different types of schemes,” the report said.

The report says sector mobile, established researchers affect the quality of research, education and innovation positively within a range of disciplines and fields at universities and in companies.

“These researchers can act as a bridge of knowledge between the public and the private research environments by disseminating knowledge, experience and networks that are otherwise difficult to transfer between the environments.

“Established mobile researchers contribute to fostering environments characterised by cross-sector collaboration; they can act as catalysts for translating research into innovation; and they are role models for young researchers and students.

“Sector mobility among established researchers benefits the quality of the work in both sectors and is relevant to the work undertaken both at universities and in the business sector.”

Knowledge exchange

The knowledge transferred includes experience of culture, traditions and working procedures that would otherwise not be transferred.

“This type of knowledge exchange enhances the quality of collaborations and closer ties between university environments and companies more so than a number of more formal collaborative relations. This has a beneficial impact on, for example, research partnerships,” the report said.

It concluded that sector mobility requires executive management at Danish universities to devote attention and resources to academic disciplines where sector mobility is not part of the culture, but where there are good preconditions for introducing this type of knowledge exchange.

It said universities can particularly increase the degree of sector mobility with industry by using job structure more flexibly and actively, since it was found that many such transfers to industry took place after an initial placement period.

Chairman of DFiR, Professor Jens Oddershede, told University World News he was surprised to see how much sector mobility at senior level was localised to certain institutes in the medical and engineering sector.

“This is simply dependent upon leadership and tradition at each institute,” he said.

He was also surprised at indications that mobility is valued more highly in higher education than research, since being attached to an industry as a researcher is one of the more direct ways to get a job in industry.

He said the government has not planned specific initiatives to promote sectoral mobility so far but could do so via the research strategy presented on 5 December once details are fleshed out.