22 February 2010 By Northern Lights
The government is on a mission to get universities and businesses working together.
In October last year, Lord Mandelson spoke at the CBI’s summit on higher education, saying “….. universities will have to deepen and diversify their sources of non-public income through commercialization of their teaching or research expertise …..”
While I think every business in the country would applaud and support this aim, there is an almost insurmountable barrier to achieving this vision: how the government currently rates ‘commercial’ research funding.
To become a doctor or professor, an academic has to carry out research, usually taking several years, which is peer reviewed and published in an academic journal. To the layman, it seems that the fewer people who read the journal, the more highly ranked it is (academically), the more prestige for the academic – and crucially the more funding the government gives to this academic and their university.
Government funding is awarded through various bodies – mostly through the Research Councils and allocated through a system known as the Research Assessment Exercise, carried out every five years. The results of the last exercise were announced in 2009. In this exercise, every academic aspired to be ranked a 4 star (the ‘gold standard’), attracting the lion’s share of research council funding. The Russell Group comprising the top 20 out of 110 universities gets two-thirds of all this type of funding.
Much to the surprise of most business people, research council funding has not needed to show any direct benefit or usefulness.
I recently heard an academic refer to this money as ‘clean money’, in contrast to the ‘dirty money’ paid by businesses for research into solving their real-time problems or finding new opportunities.
This academic stunned a group of business leaders by saying, ‘If I work with businesses and carry out research that is tangibly useful and commercial, but not published in a top journal – I am jeopardising my academic career. I probably will not get a professorship.”
The government has recognised the problem – to some extent. It has come up with a new process called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). There is a consultation at the moment and guidelines will be issued ready for 2013 (the wheels of academia turn at a different rate from those in the business world).
REF introduces a new concept, that of ‘Impact’. In essence, how useful the research has been to the world at large. It is thought this will count for up to 30% of the total marks, though this is being hotly debated. The CBI certainly wants to keep Impact at 30% whilst many academic groups suggest it is lowered. For example the Russell Group suggest it is no more than 15%!
There are numerous challenges behind Lord Mandelson’s vision of businesses and universities working together, not least the chasm of culture and timescales. But the biggest barrier is within their remit – they must rate research carried out for businesses as gold star, regardless of whether it is published in a top ranking journal.