A new scheme aims to bring academia and industry together.
The disparity between the wealth of Britain's achievements in scientific research and innovation, and its relative lack of success at commercial exploitation and development, has often been remarked upon. The explanation may be largely cultural, reflecting a gulf in understanding between scientists and engineers one one hand and businessmen on the other. But it is also, to a degree, structural. Past efforts to bridge the gap between university research and manufacturing industry, by bodies such as the Science and Engineering Research Council, were not particularly effective. It is to be hoped that the latest initiative, involving the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC a successor to SERC), will be more successful.
That's emphatically the intention. The scheme puts flesh on the aims outlined in the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential, notes Dr Tony Ledwith, Pilkington's head of group research. The EPSRC's £30 million budget will be directed solely towards university research and postgraduate training which, says Ledwith, "fit the White Paper objective of enhancing the UK's economic competitiveness and the quality of life of its citizens".
Professor Sue Lyons, director of combat engines at Rolls-Royce believes the scheme has come in the nick of time. "Dissatisfaction has been growing in industry for a number of years," she says. SRV used to be accused of promoting scientific research regardless of whether it brought any benefit to industry. Other initiatives, such as the Teaching Company scheme, "have been patchy and failed to progress the whole significantly". The EPSRC scheme will combine user-pull and opportunity-push. "It requires academics to be more businesslike, and industry - which is so lean now, and short of funds - to ensure a good working relationship with university researchers."
A novel twist to the scheme is the appointment of two panels to assist the chief executive, Professor Richard Brook,and council. A "technical opportunities panel" (TOP), staffed by academics, will advise on emerging opportunities in science and technology. On the other side, a "user panel" (UP), with members drawn from industry, will comment on the relevance of EPSRC's funding policy to industrial needs. "The input from both sides is a positive step forward and will ensure a better balance between research undertaken for its own sake and research which is strategic and aimed at wealth creation," says Ledwith, who is chairman of the UP.
Although almost everyone seems basically in favour, some academics are nervous. Dr Bryan Johnson, professor of inorganic chemistry at Edinburgh University, admits that, in the past "academics valued freedom at the expense of what was practical". But he adds, "this initiative must not curtail their ability to investigate topics of pure academic value." Dr Alec Broers, professor of electrical engineering at Cambridge University, as similar reservations: "The role of universities cannot be merely to solve industry's problems."
Industrial technologies generally seem anxious to soothe these concerns. Dr Mel Ward, head of projects at Lucas Industries' advanced engineering centre, accepts that a balance is necessary. "The old system, under which academics judged projects and granted applications by a system of peer review was clearly wrong ... However I would hate to see that balance swing to the extent that academics were no more than consultants to industry. Academics have to have some freedom to do speculative blue-sky research." Rick Mitchell, technical director of Cambridge-based Domino Printing Services, agrees that industry should not treat academic researchers as subcontractors. In his view, "Academics have great experience and enthusiasm. It is incumbent upon businessmen not to approach them as they would another company - with a hard-nosed attempt to nail them down on times and prices."
On the other hand Peter Giles, chairman of electronics manufacturer Riva Group, is an outspoken sceptic who expects no good to come of attempts to bring industrialists and scientists together. "I am very wary about government initiatives in this area. The good ideas of academics are too far removed from the commercial interests of a company. If you were given £500,000 to spend with a university then it might work, because the customer drives the project. Without the discipline of the customer you get ivory-tower development - usually late and three times more expensive than budgeted."
Yet it's not impossible to find common ground, even though industrialists and academics have to accept that they are, in Mitchell's words, "different animals with different styles, aims and curiosities". One example provides inspiration. Sir James Black, professor of analytical pharmacology at King's Cross Medical School and a Nobel laureate, worked - at different times in his career - for ICI Pharmaceuticals, SmithKline and Wellcome - and left a trail of blockbuster drugs in his wake.