Academic Research and Commerce in the Next Decade

As I read and hear more about the concept of the ‘knowledge economy’, the more I am struck by how both the academic and commercial sectors need to further adapt to the challenges of the ever-changing economic world. Commerce needs to learn to build bridges with academic institutions, as grass roots research is the raw material upon which innovation is built.

However, there is still a prevailing attitude in academia that interacting with business is ‘selling out’. Many companies, especially those in the life science and biotech sectors in which I work, have been quick to forge these relationships, recognising the importance of commercialising scientific discoveries. The attitude of academics has been less progressive, with commercial collaborations the exception rather than the norm. Clearly something needs to change in order to increase the dialogue between academia and business for the good of the economy.

The Knowledge Economy

Since the 2008 economic meltdown, production and export from many Western developed countries has significantly slowed, in large part due to the pressure put on the system by cheaper alternatives in Asia. In order to stay competitive, the West has had to focus on those sectors where it can still lead the world. One such area is in the quality and number of university graduates our top academic institutions can produce. Highly trained ‘thinkers’, ‘designers’ and ‘innovators’ drive the progression of new technologies, creating new markets (and therefore jobs) by effectively creating sectors that did not exist before.

In this way, investment in the so called ‘knowledge economy’, propels economic development in ways that are difficult to predict and cannot be easily and quickly usurped by cheaper alternatives in Asia. It is therefore unsurprising that Western governments (and private entities) have been investing significant resources into nurturing our academic talent. Asian markets have not been blind to this, and have themselves invested heavily in research and education in an effort to catch up quickly. In order to stay ahead of the game, Western economies must leverage the small lead they have as soon as possible, by fully utilising the West’s knowledge resources.

Academic Attitudes

Having spent over ten years in higher education and academic research, I was able to witness first hand the attitude of academics to collaborating with commercial companies. All too often there appears to be, at best a malaise, and at worst a fierce opposition to, exploiting research efforts for commercial gain. Now, I undertook my PhD and post-doc studies at Cambridge, a university that prides itself on tradition and excellence, so it may not be the best barometer for measuring the attraction between companies and academics. Either way, all academics at all institutions should be encouraged to consider the commercial value of their research. They are not selling out. Far from it. They are buying in.

Academics should be made to realise that THEY are the most important resource Western countries such as the UK have for the future. Even the most blue sky research has a commercial application; even if it is ‘just’ the development of niche methods and tools for conducting that kind of research. These can be commercialised and sold around the world, driving future economic development, generating a return for the inventor and increasing workflow efficiency for everyone involved. It’s win-win-win.

Driving the Dialogue

Well, that’s the problem, so what can we do about it? This is where I urge you to get involved, valued reader. What can we do to foster links between academia and commerce? I can utilise my (brief) experience in the life science sectors to make a few suggestions but I think this conversation requires wider input, and your expertise. The economic livelihood of western society may depend on it!

Some ideas:

1. Educate

It may be necessary to educate academia to view commercial partners as another resource to be valued rather than shunned or feared. This will take a campaign to change academic attitudes.

2. Make it easy

If you are in the commercial sector and you want to leverage the creations of the knowledge economy then you need to make it as easy as possible for academics to contribute. For example, invite them to speak at your company (simultaneously sharing their wisdom) or take it a step further and organise larger seminars of conferences. You could even offer free ‘consultation services’, where you send your experts in to sit with scientists and discuss the best way to commercialise their research. It will take time and resources, but it might make sure you are on to the next big thing before anyone else is.

Please share your ideas in the comment section below.