The UK has a vibrant, world-class innovation ecosystem spanning both public sector research institutions and myriad R&D-intensive companies from nascent spinouts to major corporates.
The skills and expertise developed by researchers in each of these are often highly complementary, and we have across the UK an increasingly mature and diverse knowledge exchange economy where these are combined to develop new products, services, companies and policies.
But how many researchers embarking on their careers are really aware of the options for traversing the public-private sector divide, and how many organisations systematically seek and implement opportunities to facilitate this? And do either really understand either the potential benefits or barriers?
The benefits of mobility
As an example of someone whose career has alternated between university and commercial roles, I have been privileged to observe first hand certain positive feedback loops that can be generated from mobility of researchers between these two sectors.
For example, I’ve seen the benefits academic spinout founders gain by recycling the insights generated from applied commercial drug discovery back into the development of their academic research. This was evident both from my time supporting such activities at the University of Oxford and now in my Academic Partnerships role with Evotec, working internationally with a wider range of research institution partners.
However, we need to progress from considering mobility as generally “a good thing”, to a more nuanced and evidence-based understanding of the opportunities and benefits, and the barriers.
To address these questions, I have been working over the last few months together with a cohort of experts from industry and academia as a member of the Researcher Careers Mobility Taskforce organised by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).
This group has sought to understand in detail how researcher mobility contributes to the wider UK innovation and R&D agenda, the full spectrum of types of mobility, variances between different disciplines, and best practice both in the UK and internationally.
Ultimately, we aim to define practicable recommendations to improve researcher career mobility in a manner that benefits individuals, employers and the UK economy.
The Taskforce discussions have surfaced some fascinating insights; for instance, there is a great breadth of forms of mobility evident in the UK today, from the more obvious example of researchers moving between university and private sector employment, to lighter touch approaches such as secondments, experts-in-residence roles and academic consultancy.
There have also been great examples of best practice already up and running, such as the Prosper programme to support post-doc career planning. Underpinning the whole effort has been a data-driven, evidence-based approach, supported by a range of interviews and data-collecting efforts.
We now move towards crystallising the discussions, data and insights to develop a comprehensive report ready for launch in September.
Our goal is to provide a clear roadmap for stakeholders – whether universities, companies or government – to ensure that the UK is deploying progressive measures to enhance the career opportunities of our researchers, such that the worlds of academia and industry intersect rather than remain in separate orbits.