Universities face significant opportunities and challenges in how they internally organise themselves and invest their…
Victoria Galan Muros and Todd Davey have authored an opinion article on Research Media’s blog spot (Click here for the Research Media blog). Research Media is an international dissemination expert that offers a full suite of editorial, design and production services to research projects across the globe. Please find the blog article below:
European universities have conducted research since the 17th Century; however, it was not their explicit task (or main interest) to ensure that its findings were applied in society. Indeed, most universities have traditionally been perceived as ‘ivory towers’, producing knowledge for its own sake without much contact with their communities.
However, during the last decades of the 20th Century, policy makers and university managers started asking big questions: How can we undertake science relevant to society? And how can the knowledge developed by universities be better managed and transferred to have a greater impact on the communities?
Nowadays, evidence of universities collaborating externally with business is increasing, with some outstanding examples of science playing a crucial role in regional development, such as the University of Twente (The Netherlands), Coventry University (UK) or Linköping University (Sweden). In this way, university and business worlds are moving closer, and these blurring boundaries benefit everyone.
Why university-business cooperation (UBC)?
Gradually, UBC is not just being considered as a ‘transfer’, but rather a bidirectional knowledge exchange – with academics acting as the source of specialised scientific knowledge, and business as the root of practical market and societal knowledge.
On the one hand, there is growing evidence that cooperation with business can increase the amount and quality of publications universities produce, whilst helping to make teaching more relevant and engaging. Additionally, UBC creates a source of funding and improves understanding of current market needs.
On the other hand, businesses benefit from access to the latest scientific knowledge, skilled human capital and high-tech equipment. It is practice comparable to outsourcing highly specialised, breakthrough R&D activities. In this context, cooperative relationships can be mutually beneficial and provide societal impact.
How can an academic collaborate with industry?
Academics and industry can collaborate in areas such as teaching, valorisation and consulting amongst others, but this post focuses on cooperation in research.
Research collaboration occurs through multiple avenues including contract research, cooperative research projects, equipment sharing and in-kind resource provision, business services such as testing and certification, joint publications, joint supervision of theses, the provision of projects and data for student projects, industrial PhDs, industrial problem-solving and prototype development.
Furthermore, knowledge transfer to business can be made through commercialisation avenues (patent, license or other forms of intellectual property) in return for a fee, or scientists can create spin-off companies and commercialise their knowledge/technology themselves in the market. There is no one formula, but universities and individual academics must find their own way.
In spite of the large potential benefits, UBC is still not common in all universities: many barriers still exist. The first barrier relates to a lack of awareness of what each side does and a shortage of appropriate contacts. For the academic, the largest obstacles are resistance to change, bureaucracy, fear of losing their freedom and the lack of incentives to cooperate. From the company’s point of view, the main issues relate to the risk that there might be lack of results, missed timelines and IP disclosures.
Funding is commonly named as the largest barrier by both actors but many successful interactions do not involve money. Cultural differences also hinder cooperation, mostly related with communication and expectations, while personal obstacles in this area are related to a lack of trust and commitment. Finally, there is an absence of appropriate ‘translators’ who can understand and speak both the industrial and scientific language and create the conditions for common benefits.
These barriers are normal at the beginning of a relationship between two very different organisations, yet good universities and businesses manage to overcome them.
One of the main obstacles preventing UBC’s institutionalisation is a shortage of high-level recognition and academic encouragement, which can be achieved through a number of supporting mechanisms. These mechanisms range from legislation that encourages or at least facilitates UBC, to the appointment of a responsible person or office that manages UBC holistically, able to speak and understand both languages, identify win-win situations and support the whole process. Considering UBC in the work assessment of academics represents another incentive that is resulting in positive consequences, together with the internal and external promotion of UBC as the first step to raise awareness.
History has proven that the collaboration between the world of science and business is not only possible, but can also prove highly beneficial as a source of innovation. However, this cultural shift is still in its early stages and several barriers hinder the process. In order to move forward, therefore, we must start by facing those big challenges to achieve long-term collaborative relationships that not only benefit both partners but society as a whole by contributing to economic and social development.
Victoria Galan-Muros and Todd Davey
University-Industry Innovation Network
The UIIN’s Entrepreneurial Universities Good Practice Event takes place in Madrid on 29 September-1 October. Visit ourwebsite for further information: www.entrepreneurial-universities.org