UK not making the most of business-university research potential, says independent reviewer

Out-Law News | 06 Jul 2015 | 1:36 pm | 3 min. read

The UK is not making the most of the opportunity to link businesses and universities in research programmes, an independent review has found.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling was commissioned by the UK government to lead a review of business-university research collaborations. Her report said: "It is clear that the UK has played host to many successful business-university collaborations. Yet it is also clear that the UK is not reaping the full potential provided by the opportunity to connect innovative businesses - from the UK and overseas - with the excellence in the UK’s academic research base."

The Dowling report said the government has "a crucial role" to play "in fostering the conditions under which these collaborations can happen at scale and deliver enduring impacts for all parties involved". A number of recommendations for government, universities and other stakeholders (86-page / 1.60MB PDF) were included in the report.

The Dowling review group called for simplification of the UK's "research and innovation support system", which she said has "become excessively complex". This might involve consolidation of initiatives that pursue "similar aims", they said.

In its report, the review group said that the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is used to determine the quality of research a university is carrying out, could be amended to encourage academics to collaborate with businesses more. It said that a new REF could "provide more explicit recognition for staff who have moved between industry and academia in either direction, or ‘discipline-hopped’". Those recommendations stem from the fact that there is a "perception that collaborating with industry, or spending time in industry, is damaging to an academic career path", they said.

"Universities need to ensure that recruitment and promotion criteria for relevant disciplines reward rather than penalise academics who have achieved excellence in translational and collaborative activities, and that these messages are communicated effectively," the Dowling review said. "Universities must be robust in the promotion and implementation of their institutional conflict of interest policies to help protect individual researchers who receive funding from industry against personal criticisms based on misconceptions about the role of industry in this research."

Universities expert Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said there is a balance to be struck between affording academics sufficient opportunity to conduct independent research to advance learning and ensuring that there is sufficient incentive for academics to engage more with the business community.

"Business-university collaborations can benefit both parties," Ditchburn said. "For businesses, they can gain access to a broad academic and research resource to help them to develop innovative new products and services and develop links with universities that give them access to talented graduates looking for work in their industry."

"Universities are operating in an increasingly competitive market so tie-ups with major employers can be a real attraction to students, enabling staff and students to work on projects that have real-world application and where there are genuine prospects for both secondments or graduate placements and engagement with cutting edge product research and development which supports the UK economy," she said.

"In certain sectors, such as manufacturing, closer ties between the private sector and universities could encourage a rise in student numbers studying engineering and science subjects which could help address a skills shortage that is often cited as stunting the potential growth of UK business," Ditchburn said.

The Dowling review also highlighted the need for "effective brokerage", to ensure businesses, especially SMEs, can find the right "research partners". The report said that changes to tax rules could also help encourage more business-university collaborations.

"A significant disincentive to the creation of shared physical spaces is the levying of VAT on shared facilities," the report said. "The VAT system forces [the research institutions which are funded by the government, universities or charities] to choose whether to risk a hefty tax bill or lose the benefits of collaboration with business through co-location, and this choice gets built into the design of the institution."

"This is an area where government policies act at cross purposes: researchers from universities/public institutes are encouraged to collaborate with business, but the tax system imposes significant costs if this is done at any scale. The government needs to address the issue of VAT on shared facilities as a matter of urgency," it said.

Among the other recommendations included in the report was a call for greater funding for business-university research collaborations in an effort to create "a critical mass of use-inspired research activity within universities". This would "help unlock the full strategic potential of collaborative relationships", the report said.

"Experience with existing schemes suggests that a very favourable return on the public investment could be achieved over the lifetime of such a scheme," the Dowling review said.

The review group also suggested that "funding models" should be amended to encourage universities to make their intellectual property (IP) available for wider use.

"Universities have rightly become more aware of the importance of intellectual property and have significantly professionalised their knowledge exchange activities," the Dowling report said. "However, there is a tension between the desire to earn short-term income from their IP and the need to deliver wider public benefit, and potentially greater long-term return on investment from this IP. The emphasis needs to shift towards the latter, and this must be reflected in technology transfer office funding models and success metrics."

The report also called on the UK government to "define principles for commercial use of background IP created through publicly-funded research".