Public-private research partnerships were booming pre-pandemic—now they need support, says Rosalind Lowe
As the vaccination campaign against Covid-19 began last week, the value of collaborations between academia and industry had arguably never been so clearly on display.
As we gradually emerge from the Covid-19 health crisis, and start to face up to its enormous impact on our economy and labour market, these collaborations will be needed to drive recovery once more.
But, with universities and businesses both facing disruption to their operating environments, collaboration faces obstacles in the years ahead.
In the latest State of the Relationship report from the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), published today, we analyse data on collaboration between universities and businesses from 2017-18, reviewing 25 indicators of university-business collaboration.
These show steep rises of around 10 per cent in the number of collaborations, and increased funding for collaborative activities, across the UK.
Before the pandemic, in other words, universities and businesses were working with each other more than ever. This undoubtedly helped them to respond rapidly, effectively and collaboratively to the crisis.
Fast-forward to December 2020, and the outlook is more uncertain. Our report includes perspectives from many university and business leaders on how Covid-19 has impacted collaboration, and how policy priorities could or should shift in the years to come.
There are worrying signs that some forms of collaboration between universities and businesses may be in decline. Many businesses and universities seem to be focused on immediate challenges and less able to collaborate externally.
There is less resource available for collaboration, at a time when it is most needed.
Over the summer, Tomas Coates Ulrichsen at the University of Cambridge and the NCUB over the summer surveyed universities and businesses to see how Covid-19 had impacted their innovation activities.
This showed that most universities have reduced collaboration with small businesses, while two-fifths of businesses project that they will prioritise investment in internal R&D over external collaborations.
These trends are not inevitable. UK business, universities and government must work together to create an environment that supports and encourages collaboration at this critical time.
The R&D announcements in the November spending review were positive. They were a signal that the government remains committed to increasing funding for research, moving towards its target for the UK to spend 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2027 and 3 per cent in the longer term.
A three-year promise to increase funding for UK Research and Innovation and the national academies goes a long way towards giving universities and businesses long-term certainty and support.
However, in a turbulent future, collaboration between industry and academia must remain a priority.
This includes collaboration with foreign owned firms. To achieve the government’s aspiration of a more knowledge-intensive economy, increased foreign investment in R&D will be vital. As the end of the Brexit transition period looms, the UK must position itself as an attractive place for foreign companies to invest in.
In 2017-18, the growth in foreign funds into university research appeared to be slowing. With the UK leaving the single market at the end of the year, the government must be proactive about encouraging foreign companies to invest. A combined offer integrating skills, regulation, tax and funding incentives would appeal to business.
That’s why the NCUB is calling for new Innovation Collaboration Zones to be created across the UK. These would allow closer partnerships between universities, businesses, government and others at this critical time.
Covid-19 has shown that complex global challenges call for interdisciplinary approaches and open collaboration between people with different expertise and experiences.
We will not recover from the pandemic and its consequences without collaboration. Businesses can’t respond to change and drive innovative solutions if the education system does not supply the people they need to create skilled, flexible, innovative teams. Equally, education providers cannot prepare their students for the jobs of the future if they do not have insight from employers as to what skills and competencies are needed.
NCUB remains focused on helping to achieve this by convening businesses, universities, and government to consider the challenges and identify specific policy measures that can be taken to enhance collaboration.
Looking to 2021 and beyond, research, innovation and skills—all issues that rely on university-business collaboration—will underpin not just the UK’s recovery, but also our rejuvenation.
Rosalind Lowe is head of policy and engagement at the National Centre for Universities and Business
A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight