The Wilson Report – on University collaboration

The Wilson Report – on University Collaboration gets down to the specifics: better contacts between universities and business – that could help turn ideas into practical benefits. But strong leadership is needed to bring them about.

I was recently at a meeting of the R&D Society, where Tim Wilson, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, author of just published report on University Collaboration, spoke from the hip.

University outreach has recently suffered a triple whammy. The cut-backs have decimated some University Technology Transfer Offices; funding for start-up and spin-outs has become very short; and LTN, a link between university technology departments and industry, has been forced to close.

So it was a ripe moment for the Wilson Report (http://goo.gl/pi0pW), which focused attention on contacts – at the many different levels: individuals (internships, exchanges, KTPs and universities as sources of staff), projects and programmes (consultancy and other services), and longer-term relationships (Industry Research Collaborations and the likes of Rolls Royce’s University Technology Partnerships).

Closeness is of course the key (in the way that the kitchen is the key meeting place in incubators), but this is not so easy to achieve: when researchers are within easy reach of their industrial counterparts, interactions are natural. Some Science Parks (eg Daresbury) have managed these interactions very successfully, but they take careful, persistent and subtle oiling (see http://goo.gl/g92x8).

  The VC of Cambridge rather sniffily pointed out that interns are not for Cambridge; there is no more space for industry in Cambridge; and any-way many [of Cambridge’s] links are these days overseas with international companies.

   Many university departments do indeed hold events at which they present their latest work, but presentations for various reasons often fail to attract the interest that their work warrants. Hopefully other KTNs will follow the lead of the Electronics KTN in setting up meetings of local universities to showcase their work to interested parties, (http://UKUniversities.easy2partner.com/ NorthEast.aspx). Wilson simply commented that the KTNs needed ‘looking at’ –  as intermediaries. They have attracted a lot of members to join them, and have plans for developing internet contacts. (It might also help if industry’s University Liaison Officers worked more collaboratively.)

What Wilson does not touch upon is how universities are reacting to the calls for greater ‘impact’. The Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is currently preoccupying most academics, is felt to be the biggest single driver of behaviour/culture change (for good and ill) with its new 20% ‘impact’ component. (See: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/)

Two other small green shoots can be seen: a pioneering programme called Upbeat at Salford University was about how individual academics in universities could better reach out to potential users of their research work and actively help to turn it into valuable innovations on the ground. The process was then honed in use by 25 universities across Europe. This work has now been taken forward on a wider scale: ten European universities are now linked in a programme (the ‘Pascal’ Programme (http://goo.gl/9Q7Bj) whose objective is getting universities to engage with regional networks to improve regional competitiveness and quality of life. The recent report (www.lfhe.ac.uk) calls for strong leadership – in a culture where academic output is paramount. Neither of these initiatives has yet gained much traction.

        Another green shoot is The Queen’s Anniversary Awards for Higher and further Education (http://goo.gl/uexr8), first set up in 1994 – for ‘outstanding achievement in innovation, initiative, originality and benefits for the nation’. Among this year’s winners: UCL’s Institute of Ophthal-mology was awarded a prize for its work on ‘furthering understanding of the eye and visual systems and its related disorders and diseases’; and UEA for its ‘ground-breaking and innovative programmes in creative writing with wide international impact’. There were several other winners whose focus was on applied research into key environmental issues, and Queens’ University Belfast for its Comprehensive Cancer Centre, which has helped improve survival rates among patients in Northern Ireland.

The previous year there were 21 awards, but last November only 18; and they received rather less publicity. It would be a fair bet that these departments are driven by leaders who have a strong vision of the needs their work can address and of the benefits it can bring.

         The Frauenhofer model is frequently quoted as one to which we should aspire. Research clusters and hubs based on outstanding and local expertise are the places that need support; but there are examples of where the government has spread its support too thin and too wide, (eg in Nanotechnology) leading to ineffectively small and isolated units.

         It is going to take strong leadership more than mere encouragement to effect closer relationships between universities and business. (Nesta’s 2009 report (‘The Connected University’) provided a number of case studies of successful collaborations. http://goo.gl/vOmXM)

 

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