Q&A: Collaboration, innovation and research

Q&A: Collaboration, innovation and research

Imperial College London hosted their 2034: Tech Foresight event on 3 July which connected business leaders, industrial scientists and R&D Chiefs to discuss and brainstorm what lies downstream of breakthrough lab discoveries.

As well as 'Futorials' that stimulated new thinking on how science-driven innovation will impact businesses, a panel discussion took place on which the theme was "Can big organisations learn from big science?"

NCUB members Imperial College London caught up with Professor Graeme Reid, NCUB's Strategic Advisor, Professor Neil Alford, Head Department and Vice Dean, Faculty Engineering, and Professor David Klug, Professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences who were all involved in this panel discussion to find out their thoughts on some of the topics raised.

Is the UK economy capturing enough of the value generated by UK universities such as Imperial?
"When universities get right up close to the market, they operate in a commercial mode or set up commercial subsidiaries." Professor Graeme Reid

Graeme: No. The value of talented people moving into the labour market is probably captured well but not recognised fully. Other pathways between research and the economy could be expanded considerably. The UK's outstanding research base is already a magnet for foreign direct investment in R&D – so much so that this country has a large proportion of its business R&D undertaken by firms that are headquartered overseas. Some established businesses use universities well but many more are at the start of the learning curve. The National Centre for Universities and Business has attracted many large corporations from sectors such as publishing, broadcasting, banking and professional services that are expanding their relations with universities. And there are so many medium-sized businesses that we have not yet reached. That is a major area for growth in university-business relations.

Neil: Almost certainly not – for every good idea patented there are at least 10 that are not and of those 10 there are probably 5 that would be useful – so as a country we are losing a great deal of IP simply because we do not have the resources a) to bring along all the useful IP and b) to ensure that the patents are well constructed in the first place.

David: Most certainly not. Many highly promising and successful curiosity-driven (basic) research programmes languish due to significant gaps in both expertise and funding for translational research and concomitant difficulties in maintaining continuity and momentum. These are not only missed opportunities but also waste the investment made in creating the expertise, knowledge and capability in the first place. There is a lot to be said for Greg Offer's point about committing to creating the future rather than trying to predict it.

Is there a natural 'segregation' emerging- all basic research and fundamental inventions are done in academia with public money, and all translational R&D, leading to money, is this industry's behest?

Graeme: There has never been a clean segregation along these lines and there never will be. Public funding for research is most readily justified in areas where the beneficiaries are highly dispersed and have distant or poorly defined relationships to the point of research. As the relationship between the research and the beneficiaries becomes closer and clearer, the case for public funding gets progressively narrower and you would expect the private sector to play a greater role. The Technology Strategy Board are excellent at operating in that space. The great strength of universities like University College London or Imperial College is that they work across a broad span of activity from the frontiers of knowledge to commercial. When universities get right up close to the market, they operate in a commercial mode or set up commercial subsidiaries.

Neil: With the demise of the Corporate Labs – ICI/GEC etc. most basic research is taken on by Universities. Translation is really the job of industry but I wouldn't describe it as "industry's behest" – it is more accurate to say with industry collaboration.

David: If so it would be a strategic mistake. In any 'research pipeline' you have to have either overlap, or gaps. Aiming for a strict segregation will inevitably lead to gaps which are the worst thing to have. Better to struggle with some degree of messy overlap.

Loose innovation can be costly and not commercially viable - what lessons can we take from the Science community regarding how to structure innovation without stifling it?

David: Loose innovation is probably the price you have to pay for allowing the most exciting and innovative ideas to bubble up. The science community does not have an unblemished track record in this regard either, too-often stifling exciting research programmes with overcautious, unimaginative or pedestrian-minded peer-review. In practise innovators require a degree of determination to bring their ideas to fruition whether that is in an academic or industrial context, but sometimes the level of determination required is impossible to achieve and so I suspect that too many good ideas are lost to us. The balance still probably needs some shifting towards more support for radical thinking and less for iterative research.

"Just as with any research collaboration, it works well when there is a resonance and meeting of minds between the collaborating individuals." Professor David Klug
If we become more collaborative, who will be driving research in 2034?

David: This question correctly identifies an inherent tension. Collaboration is good but so is independence of thought. We do somehow have to try to have our cake and eat it too. A judicious mix of support for both independent and collaborative programmes is necessary and the very best researchers should be capable of both modes of operation and know when each is appropriate.

Neil: Scientist and engineers who are curious – always has been and always will be. The collaboration simply expands the horizon of where we look.

Do big organisations actually want to collaborate with university student projects? Or do they just want to take advantage of it? And how should graduating students protect themselves in such situation?

Graeme: The language of this question is somewhat defensive, which is a pity because in my experience business wants a fair deal that will stand the test of time rather than an exploitative relationship that falls apart and leaves bad feeling. If the relationship is about the commercialisation of university research then remember that business will actually take most of the risk and will quite properly want most of the reward.

David: Organisations vary in their attitude to these things and so do individuals within the organisations. Just as with any research collaboration, it works well when there is a resonance and meeting of minds between the collaborating individuals. It seems to be difficult for companies to find mechanism to allow their staff sufficient time and scope to properly supervise student projects, but only by doing so can they reap the potentially wider benefits.

How does the panel think industry should select academic partners to work with on a specific subject?

Graeme: This is all about personal relationships. There is no formula. And the selection process works in both directions. My advice is to meet lots of people at events like the Tech Foresight one. Unless a business is looking for a specific, well defined expertise then I would encourage it to build preliminary relationships with a network of people and move from there into deeper relationships. This is not so very different from other human relationships.

"Translation is really the job of industry but I wouldn't describe it as 'industry's behest'" Professor Neil Alford

David: No easy answer to this one but we have experimented with large companies having visiting professors seconded to Imperial for one day a week to work with, and rub shoulders with, researchers and research teams. It is important that these industry researchers are highly active and embedded in the day to day research of their organisation and not ascribed a full-time university liaison role. In one recent example the visiting professor from a large multinational has identified three significant technology streams/areas of expertise and started three collaborative projects associated with them, including buy-in from different parts of his organisation, after being here one day a week for six months. In order for this to work the relevant bits of Imperial also have to be appropriately structured to assist in this process, which the Institute of Chemical Biology is.

Neil: Reputation for academic excellence and a reputation for delivering on projects. However – most important will be the interaction relationship which has to be cooperative and productive.

What do you think? Tweet us @NCUBtweets or comment below

Other posts that may interest you:

What kind of future do you imagine?
Five reasons to love impact
The Challenges of Brokering Research Partnerships

Expand for more