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Dowling Review seeks dismantling of barriers to university-business collaboration

02 July 2015

Government needs to simplify the plethora of schemes aiming to facilitate research collaboration across all disciplines, according to a new review published today.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling DBE FREng FRS

In her report, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and compiled after regional meetings, workshops and over 210 written submissions of evidence from both academia and industry, Royal Academy of Engineering president, Professor Dame Ann Dowling says the complexity of the existing support mechanisms creates frustration and confusion and means the UK is not reaping the full potential of its opportunity to connect businesses - both domestic and international - with the excellent research being done in UK universities.

There are two approaches to streamlining the system, according to Dame Ann: reducing the overall number of schemes or simplifying the interface between the user and the scheme. She recommends that government does both.

University technology transfer offices should also set targets focused on long-term gains to get the most from their intellectual property, including patents, rather than simply short-term financial gains. Attitudes are already changing in academia: the Research Excellence Framework now gives credit to the industrial impact of research, but this needs to go further. All academics should see and feel that their university supports and rewards industrial collaboration.

Dame Ann says: "We need a change of culture in our universities to support and encourage collaboration with industry. In the UK we can be a bit dismissive about research that actually has an application, but in reality such use-inspired research can be truly excellent. Access to industry projects was cited very positively by the researchers we consulted - they want to be working on these challenging and interesting projects with demonstrable impact and excellent career prospects."

There is a gap in the market to encourage academia-industry research partnerships to grow, says the review, particularly in helping existing short-term, project-based collaborations to evolve into longer term partnerships focused on use-inspired research. The review proposes a new ‘Awards for Collaborative Excellence’ scheme that would provide pump-priming funds on a competitive basis to enable strong relationships between individuals in academia and industry to develop into group collaborations with critical mass, substantial industry funding and a long-term horizon.

Dame Ann says such schemes would be likely to provide a good return on public investment. She points to an analysis conducted in 2013 of Innovate UK’s collaborative R&D funding, which found business impacts to be twice as high for projects with two or more academic partners, at £9.67 gross value added (GVA) per pound spent, compared to projects without academic partners, at £4.22 GVA per pound.

"Solutions to everyday problems could be sitting in a lab right now, but without the conversation with industry they could be missed," she says. "It is vital that research students in appropriate disciplines spend some time in industry in order to get a new perspective on their own research, expand knowledge, and build relationships. They should also receive training, particularly around entrepreneurship."

People are at the heart of collaboration and the review recommends an incentive framework for universities and businesses to promote the transfer of ideas and people between business and academia. This includes supporting students to develop business awareness at an early stage of their research careers and recognising researchers who are successful collaborators in terms of career progression and research assessment.

"Business-university research collaboration is an important part of the innovation ecosystem, but innovation is a complex, non-linear activity," says Dame Anne. "This has resulted in a complex policy support mechanism for innovation that presents a barrier to business engagement, especially for small businesses. Government needs to take a systems view of these mechanisms in order to try and simplify the process as much as possible.

"Government has a crucial role to play in creating the right conditions for effective collaboration between academia and industry. For example, HMRC and BIS could help by giving much clearer guidance to businesses on how best to use R&D tax credits and how these interplay with State Aid restrictions."

The chief executive of Innovate UK, Dr Ruth McKernan welcomed the review. "The recommendations that Anne Dowling makes about our innovation ecosystem chime almost exactly with my own," she says. "I want Innovate UK to think about the future and show the kind of leadership that will take these recommendations forward and turn the UK into a truly innovation economy.

“We have world class universities but we need to see that excellence turned into economic benefit. We have great clusters of innovation across the UK, often centred around our universities, and we need to make sure the work of those clusters is coordinated and properly funded. We also have duty to simplify the support system for businesses and universities as much as we can to get their ideas off the drawing board and into reality. These are priorities for me as Innovate UK’s new chief executive.

“We have helped thousands of businesses work with universities and build lasting relationships and we want to help many more. So we will continue to help both universities and businesses see the benefits such a collaboration can have for each other and the economy at large, providing higher skills, productivity and growth.”

Innovate UK says it will be working with the government and research councils to respond in detail to Dame Ann's report in due course. 

To download the Dowling Review and other related material, click here.

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