Conference 2015 Report: Why are there so many reviews of university-business interaction?

A report by Tamsin Mann, Policy Officer at PraxisUnico, of the talk given by Professor Graeme Reid,  Professor of Science and Research Policy, University College London, at the PraxisUnico Conference 2015.

In this talk, Professor Reid explored why there has been such a focus in recent years on reviewing university-business collaborations. The talk included:

  • A review of reviews
  • A review of what was reviewed
  • How to answer the question "why are there so many reviews of university-business interaction?"

Following the Lambert Review in 2003 to 2006, there was a pretty orderly progress of policy development, but then there was an explosion of reviews following the general election in 2010. These were commissioned by Government, or linked organisations, and analysed by a variety of sector commentators. NCUB’s analysis showed that the nine reviews carried out in the 5 year period 2010-15 generated 297 recommendations.

When those recommendations were analysed, NCUB found that only 3% of the recommendations were addressed to business, and 11% to universities. That means that a massive 86% of recommendations were addressed to communities other than the ones under review. Analysis of the categories of recommendations drew more serious observations. The recommendations were not, in the main, about resources, but behaviours and organisation: not about finance, but about human behaviour.

The statistic on the sheer volume of recommendations, and who they were directed to, clearly chimed with the audience who asked how many recommendations had been acted upon. In response, Graeme Reid highlighted that it was very difficult to attribute actions to recommendations. Some are straightforward, such as the creation of NCUB; some are attributable but not necessarily causal; for others it is impossible to tell.

In terms of their intended audience, it’s true to say that government is probably generally nervous about making recommendations on how business should behave but this makes questioning and calling to account the demand side difficult, and naturally shifts the focus to the supply side and how it can do things “better” or differently, when in fact the evidence show that things are generally going well.

At this point I was also reminded of David Bott’s depiction of the decline in corporate R&D labs, made earlier in the day, and a comment that corporate investment had shifted from R&D to innovation. What was under review during the 2010-15 period was far from a static landscape. The impact agenda matured during this period and there were many reports written on impact.

For the Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation community, the REF changed the landscape quite profoundly because it brought research and commercialisation activities together and raised their profile, collectively. The REF created a library of material that we are still learning how to mine. But putting the impact agenda into longer context, and looking at HE-BCI data on the income generated by KEC activities, we can see that the REF impact agenda in fact just reinforced activity, and drew people into a longer-term upwards trend. What will be interesting to see is whether future years’ data reflects greater shifting of ground as a result of REF activity (i.e. will we see a more dramatic increase in the HE-BCI income data post REF 2014?).

Graeme Reid made two other comments on current activity. One was that spin-outs are a commercial reality for many UK universities, and UK universities have many success stories to tell. The hard question is whether we are able to grow these spin-outs into sizeable operations, rather than letting them be bought out by other companies? The second comment concerned a trend in UK universities to build transactional relationships in to large scale strategic relationships – of the type that will support infrastructure as well as fund research.

As a result of all this activity and trends, the UK is well regarded internationally. The World Economic Forum ranking for university-business R&D collaboration has shown the UK rising into a top 5 position in recent years. An MIT Skoltech survey puts the UK 2nd to the US in terms of university-business activity, and the Global Innovation Index too sees UK climbing steadily up rankings. These rankings can only demonstrate a vibrant, high-performing KEC community.

So, there is no easy answer to the question - but there are some theories: - in 2010, there was a shift from government targets (under Labour) to reviews (under the coalition). - that there is perhaps some lazy thinking going on. It’s all too easy to find people who will complain but objective evidence doesn’t support opinion. - that reviews are a device for government to exert control over the autonomous university sector?

This latter theory can probably be discounted, because the people chosen to do the reviews were independently minded and unlikely to deliver comfortable messages to government. - that KEC has evolved from a specialist back-office function activity, into something that has quite a high public profile. Because, partly, of the REF impact agenda there is noticeably more press coverage of contribution of science/research to the economy.

As a consequence we’re seeing the development of a small function, into a prominent one. Naturally this brings it to attention of people in the political sphere, who ask more questions, and ask for more reviews to answer them. For Graeme Reid, there remains a challenge in terms of the gap between performance and reputation: these are not aligned and it remains easy to find a business person, or senior academic, who will openly criticise university-business interactions and TTOs.

At the same time, TTOs have become one actor among many actors in the innovation “ecosystem” rather than being a single actor in specialised field. So who are the advocates for KEC now? How do we overcome the challenge of performance vs reputation? What the profession needs is senior opinion advocates who will speak up for KEC. It needs to be done by practitioners’ friends, not practitioners themselves, and they need to be engaged in creating the evidence and challenging the naysayers.

A copy of Professor Graeme Reid's presentation is available at