What?

The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations has been published. Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, was commissioned by the UK Government to advise on how Government can support university-business research collaborations, with a particular focus on promoting strategic, longer-term research collaborations.

She has made thirty-two wide-ranging recommendations, including:

  • changes to successor exercises to the Research Excellence Framework 2014 to stimulate a more positive attitude amongst academics towards collaborations with business;
  • simplification by Government and its funding agencies of the UK’s research and innovation support system, which has become overly complex and hard to navigate (in particular for SMEs);
  • more effective brokerage (including development of an online brokerage platform) between business and universities;
  • HMRC to address urgently the issue of VAT on shared facilities, which currently disincentivises Universities from sharing capital facilities with business;
  • the introduction of a new public and private co-funded scheme (so-called ‘Awards in Collaborative Excellence’) to provide pump-priming funds to allow small-scale, early stage collaborations to develop into group collaborations with critical mass, substantial industry funding and a long-term horizon; and
  • prioritisation by University technology transfer offices of knowledge exchange over short-term income generation, and increased use of template research agreements.

Background

The review was commissioned by the UK Government in December 2014 in its “Plan for Growth: science and innovation”.

University-business research collaborations have been an exceptionally popular target for studies in recent years. There have been 14 such studies since 2003, including the Lambert Review in 2003, the Hauser Report in 2010 on Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK, and the UK Intellectual Property Office Report in 2013 on the Lambert Toolkit 8 Years On. This is not surprising, given the potential significance of such collaborations for growth and job creation in a knowledge-based economy, coupled with concerns that the UK continues to lag behind the rest of the world in overall investment in R&D and converting research into commercial success, despite the world-leading research base in UK universities.

The terms of reference of the Dowling Review differed from previous studies, due to the focus on strategic, long-term collaborations.

Also, there have been significant changes in the UK innovation landscape since the date of many of the previous studies, including: the growth in innovation funding through Innovate UK; establishment of the network of Catapults; the development by the coalition government of a modern industrial strategy and identification of Eight Great Technologies in which the UK excels and can lead the world; the increase in importance of collaboration and open innovation in recent years as a way of solving difficult technical challenges; and the conclusion of the first Research Excellence Framework. So a fresh look at this juncture seems to have been justified.

Many business sectors are potentially affected, with diversified industrials, TMT and life science companies leading the way in current collaborations with Universities.

So what?

Intellectual property and contracting is identified in the review as a particularly thorny issue, despite the significant work which has been done on this area by government and others over the last ten years. For business, it was identified as the primary stumbling block in working with universities. In this regard, Professor Dowling recommends that: 

  • the UK Intellectual Property Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should define principles for the commercial use of background IP created through publicly-funded research, rather than leaving complete freedom to universities to determine the terms on which their background IP would be made available to business collaborators for commercial purposes;
  • the UK public funding agencies, in particular the research councils and Innovate UK, should build on their successful experiences of mandating the use of standard-form template agreements as a condition of grant funding.

However, she comments that her review has confirmed that creating R&D contracts is an inherently complicated process, involving asymmetric motivations and expectations between industry and business, uncertainties about the results of the collaboration and long-term timescales. For example, academics and students generally need to be able to publish the results of their research, whilst business regards the confidentiality of sensitive technical and business information (much of which may not be patentable) as vital. As such, she recognises that it may be unrealistic to expect developing R&D contracts ever to be a straightforward exercise.

Professor Dowling’s support for mandating the use of standard-form agreements is noteworthy, and appropriately nuanced. She recognises that standard-form agreements have not achieved wide-spread acceptance in this sector. For example, only 15% of research is estimated to be based on the Lambert standard form agreements and associated toolkit, despite the high hopes for those agreements when they were introduced in 2005. However, 80% of those who were aware of the Lambert agreements reported that they simplified the construction of agreements and provided useful information and precedents. Professor Dowling therefore believes that more can be done, in appropriate situations such as innovation voucher schemes, to reduce the legal costs of contracting by use of template agreements. She also points to situations in which the research councils have been able to expedite research collaborations by mandating the use of template agreements as a condition of grant funding. For example:

  • the Medical Research Council (MRC) has required the use of the model Industry Collaboration Research Agreement (mICRA) in certain of its grant-funded clinical trials. (The mICRA was developed by the MRC and National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) as a model agreement for use in phase 2 and phase 3 clinical trials involving the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, academia and NHS organisations.)
  • a single framework of arrangements for handling IPR and commercial exploitation of research results was developed for the EPSRC-funded national network of Quantum Technologies Hubs, which all participating higher education institutions agreed to use.

Interestingly, the universities and individual academics who took part in the review reported that the primary difficulty in achieving successful strategic collaborations is the academic environment itself. Individual academics are often not rewarded for successful collaborations with business or for time spent working in industry in the way that they are for, for example, published research. Many of the recommendations in the report are directed at overcoming this cultural difficulties and encouraging the development of strong and trusting personal relationships between industry and academia.