Encourage more researchers to gain industry experience, says NCUB

Only one in five researchers in UK universities have been employed in private sector, says new report

September 19, 2023
Source: iStock

Encouraging researchers to move between industry and academia throughout their careers will stimulate innovation and growth, according to senior business and university leaders.

In a new report, the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) says that just 20 per cent of researchers currently working at UK universities have previously been employed in the private sector.

Its research showed that this is below the average across the European Union, and about half as many as in countries such as Poland and Bulgaria.

However, it is broadly in line with other large research- and development-intensive economies such as Germany and France.

Concerted action is needed from government, research funders, universities, businesses and researchers themselves to improve this and help reap the benefits of “intersectoral mobility”, says the NCUB researcher career mobility task force.

Sam Laidlaw, co-chair of the task force and chair of NCUB, said the UK has made progress in recent years in supporting researcher mobility, but it must go further and faster.

“Businesses and universities materially benefit from researcher mobility, by encouraging them to collaborate and gain the experiences they need to develop impactful innovations,” he said.

“To meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, we must support research to happen across the interfaces of academia, industry, government and other sectors by developing dynamic, diverse career pathways.”

The task force calls on government to make diverse research careers a key design principle of the research and innovation system.

And it says public research funders should come together to design a more comprehensive mobility scheme offer, so all researchers have the opportunity to access support.

NCUB believes that every researcher in the UK deserves the opportunity to experience research in different environments and domains.

Karen Holford, co-chair of the task force and vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, said the recommendations created a blueprint for a more connected system, setting out a call to action to the sector to be bolder, and to the government to ensure the incentives and funding are in place to catalyse a revolution in research careers.

The report highlights a number of intersectoral mobility programmes established by UK organisations, including the Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy.

It says these are successful in creating specific opportunities for researchers to work with and across organisations in other sectors to build connections and create real world impact from their research.

NCUB says greater intersectoral mobility would allow universities to gain access to researchers with industry skills and expertise in people and process management.

“This knowledge in turn benefits internal ways of working, strengthens university-industry connections, including access to business networks and potential funding sources, and brings in the skills necessary to drive and lead spin-outs,” say the authors.

They add that stronger links with industry can also help inform new research questions, creating a positive feedback loop between universities and industry partners.


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Reader's comments (2)

Although I am very supportive of the sentiments in this article, with the academic system as it is there is little prospect of success. As an engineering student in the 1980s, most of my lecturers had industrial experience. Now, with a large research CV being a prerequisite to an interview, this is not the case. I spent some time in a commercial job and thus broke my research record. As a result, I had to work my way up from low-ranked universities to the Russell Group despite a Cambridge PhD. There are no longer many companies doing blue skies work as was the case when I was young, so in a system that values publications and especially research income, there are not enough suitable placements. There seems to be little true understanding of the value of universities interacting with industry unless it can add to the bottom line. Many of the university administrators have also not spent time outside universities and also need secondments or something similar. It would certainly be useful to have industrialists spend some time in universities too since my experience is that they are not always familiar with the reality of the modern academic environment.
Would be great if academics were allowed to work with industry. Sadly, this would be the death knell of the career of an academic who chose to do so. Any work that is not REF related is dismissed as 'irrelevant. For those of us who began our career in industry before moving to academia, the refusal to recognise the benefits of collaboration with industry as opposed to churning out 4* REF papers is a sad reality. Still, we live in hope, so maybe one day such collaborations on their own will be rewarded as a contribution to research.