Research-oriented businesses often turn to university departments to top-up their own in-house research and development. In recent times this kind of association has taken on a new importance - for both parties - because of the cut-back in public-sector funding of basic research. A partnership with academia can help a company keep one eye cocked for `blue-sky' discoveries that might affect its future, and even bring blue-sky findings down into the realm of applied research.
True, most of the work carried out in university laboratories on behalf of industry is still contract research aimed at solving some well-defined and relatively mundane problem. The contract sometimes goes out to tender, the company pays for the research staff and use of equipment (probably on a cost-plus-overheads basis) and it owns any results that might emerge - though universities are becoming increasingly worldly about negotiating royalties, or a share in the value of new developments. However, the speed of change in some specialisms, such as biotechnology and aspects of computer science, is such that the definition of the problem may have changed out of all recognition by the time the results start coming in. In such cases as this it's useful for the company to have its own representative permanently on the spot, inside the university.
One approach is to sponsor a research post. The researcher can be expected to hold a watching brief in the area of science or technology of particular interest to the company, and may act as a conduit for the recruitment of graduates. But the fact that the company pays an academic's salary and overheads will not necessarily give it much influence over the direction of the research. Dr David Thomas, who is in charge of research contracts at Imperial College, London, admits that this solution tends towards the `charitable donations' end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, Japanese companies, in particular, find it a useful way of keeping abreast of work being carried out in UK universities.
Hitachi, for example, sponsors a lectureship in the department of electrical and electronic engineering at Imperial College. Hitachi's interest lies in the area of `neural networks', self-learning software which imitates the functions of the brain. In this instance the company has no rights over research findings. However, reporting back to Japan once year, the lecturer will point to developments which could be of importance to Hitachi. Conceivably, this could lead to full-blown collaboration at a later stage, in which case ownership of intellectual property would have to be negotiated.
Glaxo wanted a lot more than contract research, and more than an oversight of latest developments. `We do pretty good research in-house,' observes Pat Humphrey, former director of pharmacology at Glaxo Research & Development, `but we felt we could benefit from cross-fertilisation.' Facilities were available in Cambridge where, at the instigation of Professor Alan Cuthbert, space had been created in the pharmacology department for industrial researchers to work alongside their academic counterparts. In 1992 it was agreed that Glaxo should move in, at a cost of £16 million over 10 years. `It was very much a meeting of minds,' says Humphrey, who was recently appointed a professor although he is still employed by Glaxo. `Our collaborations have been as good as we could possibly have hoped.'
It's still too early to point to tangible products, apparently, but Glaxo has a reputation for getting a return on its research spending.