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Consultancy is an invisible powerhouse

Academic consulting is a success story that nobody talks about. If we could work out just how much of it goes on, that might change, says Paul Cray.

UK academics have a long and honourable history of commercial consulting. Lord Kelvin, perhaps the foremost scientist of the Victorian era, frequently engaged in such work, and the range-finders on British warships from the 1890s were designed by the eponymous Barr and Stroud, academics at Yorkshire College, acting as consultants for the Admiralty. When I worked at the Defence Research Agency in the late 1990s, the Ministry of Defence required all the projects I was involved in to include an element of external consultancy, generally provided by friendly academics.

Yet such consulting is almost never talked about. Andrew Witty’s recent report Encouraging a British Invention Revolution barely mentions it. The government and universities instead focus on intellectual property, patent licensing and spinouts. Start-ups are sexy, and everyone involved hopes to be part of the next Google. But in reality, very few ever bring products successfully and profitably to market.

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