When it comes to consultations, report and reviews, the area of university-business collaboration is certainly fertile ground, with 12 publications since 2010 alone (see the National Centre for Universities and Business ‘review of reviews database‘ (XLS) for more information). This month has seen the release of the latest, the Dowling Review of Business-University Collaboration.

It is well established that strong links between universities and business can bring about economic and social benefits, by helping companies innovate and academics commercialise their research. So how does the Dowling review differentiate itself from its predecessors?

Commissioned in 2014 by the then Science Minister, Greg Clark, the review was given a focus on strategic partnerships between universities and businesses. Dame Ann Dowling and her review group have investigated the strength and weaknesses of these partnerships across the UK’s academic and industry sectors.

The conclusion of the first Research Excellence Framework (REF), which generated a large number of ‘impact case studies’ detailing successful business-university collaborations, acted as an important and timely source of evidence. Combining the REF data with submissions from universities, businesses, representative bodies and individuals, the review’s recommendations are aimed at all involved in the process of building relationships, from individual researchers through to funding bodies and government.

Room for improvement?

Overall, the UK has a good reputation when it comes to links between universities and business although there is still room for improvement. The Dowling review has uncovered other potential weaknesses.

Firstly, the strength of business-university collaborations varies markedly between sectors, institutions and companies. Analysis of the REF case studies identified some large companies as active collaborators, whereas others of similar size and focus rarely featured in, or were completely absent from the data. The report argues that getting more companies to engage, and engage successfully, with the higher education (HE) sector will not only benefit the individual businesses and universities involved, but the UK as a whole.

Collaborations – it’s personal

Of equal concern was that many senior managers, in both universities and businesses, consulted during the review were unable to provide strategic oversight of the number and size of partnerships their organisations were involved in. This finding may arise from a key observation of the Dowling review – collaborations often begin with connections between individual researchers.

Although it might be harder for management to track, personal relationships are central to successful partnerships and the review recommends how individuals can be encouraged and supported when building collaborations.

Incentives must embolden academics to work with industry, rather than make them feel the HE system works against them if they do. Spending time in industry should be viewed as a ‘mark of esteem’ in an academic’s career and promotion and recruitment criteria must make commercial research an integral part of success in ‘relevant disciplines’.

Like Witty before, the inclusion of impact in the REF is commended for changing academic culture, and the review calls for the impact weighting to be maintained or even increased in the next exercise.

Figure 10 from the Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations gives an overview of complex landscape of innovation support in the UK. Reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Figure 10 from the Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations gives an overview of complex landscape of innovation support in the UK. Reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Engineering. (Click to enlarge)

Simplifying the system

The Dowling review is not the first to criticise the complexity of the UK’s innovation support system, nor the first to recommend that existing schemes should be simplified and consolidated.

This complexity is particularly challenging for SMEs, who lack the time or money to understand and identify the correct schemes they should engage with. NCUB are developing an intelligent brokerage tool, which should help companies and academics navigate the system.

The national picture could be further improved if Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and university technology transfer offices (TTOs) worked together to share best practice, rather than compete. Echoing the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society’s own submission to the review, the reviews call upon TTOs in particular to prioritise longer-term knowledge exchange over short-term income generation.

However, despite the complex system, the review recommends creating a new funding scheme, the ‘Award in Collaborative Excellence’ (ACE). As proposed, ACE will pump-prime existing strong relationships between individuals, turning them into long-term group collaborations with ‘critical mass’ and substantial industry funding.

The call on government

Other than addressing urgently the problem of VAT on shared research facilities, which penalises non-profit research institutions hosting commercial partners, the recommendations for government are relatively light touch. Although greater coordination and clarity is recommended, the previous government’s industrial strategy and focus on the ‘eight-great technologies’ has laid the groundwork from which business-university collaborations can support economic growth.

With plenty of good will in both sectors, the main role for government, according to Dowling, is to ensure that the component parts in place work together as an effective system.  As the new Science and Universities Minister, Jo Johnson welcomed the review and a formal response from Government is expected in the Autumn, it remains to be seen which of Dowling’s recommendations will be implemented and how.

Read the Royal Society’s submission to the Dowling Review.