Universities are increasingly moving from being Ivory Towers where research is conducted in a societally detached manner into a rich nexus of research partnerships. We have industry partners, partners at international institutions, non-governmental partners, community partners and governmental partners at municipal, provincial and federal levels. Here are some reflections on what works well and what still challenges us as universities in our work with industrial research partners. (I will turn to other kinds of partnerships in future columns.)
University industrial research partnerships are important to Canadian industries. Of our country’s total Gross Expenditures on Research and Development (GERD) in 2012, 38 percent was performed by the higher education sector.
One of Dalhousie University’s researchers has a long-standing partnership with a particular company. When I asked why he liked working with this partner, he responded enthusiastically: “Exposure to real problems and developing real solutions. It is very exciting and rewarding to see one’s work incorporated into products that people use every day.” The benefits to his graduate students are high funding levels for them and for their research, frequent participation in international conferences and intense interaction with industrial partners that translates into jobs.
There are, nevertheless, some compromises. Publications and disclosures have to be approved by the company that holds all the intellectual property and they can be held up for six months until patents are filed. He and his students cannot participate in Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council networks and cannot work with other companies. This IP and exclusivity arrangement is only possible at a university such as Dalhousie or Waterloo where 100 percent of IP goes to the researcher.
This researcher’s situation is in some ways exceptional. However, many others have told me about enriching experiences for them and their students, and the importance of building relationships with their partners by nurturing trust. One said that trust is built by producing results in a timely manner, by engaging partners as much as they want to be included, and by producing regular progress reports.
Professors also need to be attentive and responsible to the industrial partner for the work of their students. A positive experience with a partner can lead to more partnering possibilities and these possibilities can often be expanded by government funding.
In Canada, several governmental funding mechanisms support university industrial partnerships. At NSERC alone, the Strategy of Partnerships and Innovations supports a range of programs, from small NSERC Engage grants to Industrial Research Chairs and Collaborative Research and Development grants, all of them awarded for excellence. Such programs have doubled the number of university-industry projects annually, with total industry contributions of close to $200 million over the last five years. The majority of NSERC-supported projects are with small- and medium-sized enterprises (Research Money, January 26, 2015).
Our universities generally endorse industrial research partnerships, but there are some growing pains. It is not clear that we are fully supportive when it comes to tenure adjudication, where contracts and business reports frequently do not carry the same weight as research grants and peer-reviewed publications. Certain members of the academy frown on industrial research partnerships, believing they produce less worthy science. While it is true that there is not the same peer-reviewed excellence evaluation for contracts, this doesn’t mean that they do not have a significant importance for researchers, students and society.
It’s also not clear that all university researchers who do take part in industrial partnerships appreciate the importance of including overhead costs in their contracts or understand the complexity of legal oversight of their contractual arrangements. Some overlook or forget that the physical space for their contract work and the legal expertise are provided by the university and that the university needs to recover the full costs of research.
In addition, like any good partnership, industrial research partnerships need to be based on recognizing the value of the partnership, on trust, and on the ability to meet the other’s needs. They are not a replacement for other forms of research. They are an addition. Our academies need to be safe havens that, at the same time, have open doors and windows to the world.