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Impact of industry experience in academia must be recognised

HERE IN the UK we have some of the world's top Universities. Alongside the US we dominate all the league tables for high quality research at our leading institutions but, unlike the US, the British economy doesn't rate particularly well in applying this innovative Research and Development (R&D) to industry.

 

We spend about 1.7 per cent of our GDP on R&D, compared to 2.7 per cent in the USA or 2.9 per cent in Germany. It was partly to address this shortfall that the UK Government asked Professor Dame Ann Dowling to do a review of business-university research collaborations, and to see if more of our excellent innovative research could be fed through to create success in the wider UK economy.

 

Dowling is an excellent choice to lead this study; as well as heading up the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge she is a non-executive director of BP and has worked closely with Rolls-Royce for many years. 

 

She has also spent time at Caltech and MIT in the past - two of the most industrially connected US Universities - and is the current president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, where more than half the Fellows are from industry.

 

Her report was published in July and has been warmly welcomed by Government. At the heart of it is the perception of what is and isn't appropriate for an academic career. Due to the fact that universities are mostly measured - and rewarded - on the quality of their research output there is a natural aversion to gaining industrial experience, which is often perceived negatively. Thus a spell spent as a visiting researcher at a prestigious university such as a Princeton or Stanford is seen as very positive to an academic career, whereas time spent with leading companies such as Airbus or Microsoft is not.

 

Dowling thinks this is all wrong, her report says "the perception that collaborating with industry, or spending time in industry, is damaging to an academic career path persists and detracts from the attractiveness of such activities". 

 

She suggests "for academics in relevant disciplines, spending time in industry should be seen as a mark of esteem that enriches their career, analogous to gaining international experience". 

 

She continues: "Universities and research institutions should expect newly appointed principal investigators in such disciplines to gain industrial experience - if they do not already have any - and funding agencies should ensure that grant conditions encourage this".

 

When I took part in the University Research Assessment exercises in 2001 and 2006, I was the 'non-academic' in the room and I found it difficult to get any industrial experience recognised at all. By the 2014 exercise we were explicitly asked to measure the 'impact' that resulted from research - a measurement that would result in 20% of the resulting funding - but I found the definition of industrial impact to be very restrictive, eliminating almost all successful university linked commercial projects from consideration.

 

Dowling's advice in her report is clear, and it is to be hoped that the research councils and universities will take it fully on board. In the US, academics regularly move between academia and industry, to the benefit of both, but the current way we measure and reward academic research in the UK makes it much more difficult here.

 

Research funding will have to change, recognise the importance of industrial experience, and give much more weight to real 'impact'. Then we might be able to match the R&D performance of the US or Germany.

 

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