The Big Picture: driving research out of its ivory tower

Posted on 5 Mar 2012

Public funding for university research is being squeezed and many researchers are turning to the private sector instead. Dr Tim Minshall argues for the benefits this trend will bring.

Tim Minshall - Senior Lecturer in Technology Management at the Institute for Manufacturing
Tim Minshall - Senior Lecturer in Technology Management at the Institute for Manufacturing

With public funds stretched to their limits and beyond, university researchers are increasingly beating a path to industry’s door in search of funding. This will have a necessary impact on the type and relevance of research carried out in the UK.

While Government-funded research does generally require some demonstration of real-world impact, too often this is a last-minute addition to the funding application – a box-ticking exercise, rather than a real driver behind the choice of research topic.

With industry-funded projects companies are likely to work closely with researchers from an early stage, often as part of a consortium of academic and industrial partners. Industrial input provides academics with insights into the current problems facing companies and helps to steer research to address industry’s most pressing needs.

While more long-term ‘blue-sky’ research remains important and will need government support, encouraging industrial funding of more applicable or urgent topics will create direct benefits to all involved.

Cambridge University recently ran a workshop for academics on how to build partnerships with firms. Participants used role plays and elevator pitches to practice the strategies they should adopt when investigating the needs of commercial partners and connecting this with academic research.

The Institute for Manufacturing has already been involved in many successful research collaborations with industry and is convinced that, overall, the trend for greater collaboration between industry and academia is win-win. Researchers get real problems to work on and real insights into where industry is going. Companies in turn have a direct influence on the direction of research and gain access to research findings which they may not have the expertise or resource to uncover alone.

Too often, in the past, researchers have been able to avoid thinking about the relevance and applicability of their work to the real world. Industrially funded research collaborations means this becomes a starting point rather than an afterthought.

Dr Tim Minshall is a Senior Lecturer in Technology Management at the Institute for Manufacturing.