You say tomato, I say long-term industrial strategy

dameIP Draughts has come rather late to the news that the UK Government has commissioned another study on how universities and businesses can work better together. It is called the Dowling Review, after its leader, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, who (among many other illustrious positions) is both President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge. It is due to report soon.

According to her letter of appointment, “the objective is to help researchers to understand better the interests of industry”. The letter goes on to describe other things that Dame Ann should do, but this quoted sentence comes first. It seems to IP Draughts a poor start to a brief. It assumes that the reason why industry and academia are not working better together is a lack of understanding on the part of researchers, rather than a mutual incomprehension, and that researchers need the help rather than industry. It seems to reflect a view that, if only academia could be more focussed on the needs of British industry, the economy would improve. It fails to address the possibility that British academia is thriving and doing what it is supposed to do, and that the fault lies with British industry, for being too small, risk-averse and lacking in financial resources to make proper use of the output of universities, unlike industry in other countries, such as the USA or Germany. Some would say that British academia is has a much higher, international reputation than British industry.

IP Draughts has advised on many “strategic relationships” between universities and industry over the last 30 years. Some have followed a conventional path, governed by a research funding agreement. Others have tried to find a new way of working, through joint ventures, centres of excellence, high-level consultancies, embedding industrial staff in university departments, and many other models. Often, a rationale for these fancy structures has been to create an environment in which academic researchers and industry can work closely together.

half bakedWhichever model is used – and IP Draughts has wasted too many hours of his life trying to reduce half-baked, strategic visions into a meaningful, contractual form – the tension between academic objectives and business objectives remains. It may be mitigated by creative ways of working, but it cannot be removed entirely. Industry and academia have different, underlying objectives. The differences are not rough edges to be smoothed into a more efficient shape through the good offices of a junior minister at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. They are meant to be different.

For some light relief from these thoughts, IP Draughts rewrote Dame Ann’s letter of engagement, focussing it on the legal disciplines rather than industry. It came out like this:

Dear Ann
You have kindly agreed to develop advice and recommendations for BIS on how Government can support relationships between practising lawyers and legal academics.
The objective is to help academics to understand better the interests of practising lawyers. Increased collaboration linking the long-term strategic needs of UK legal practice with our outstanding legal research capabilities can deliver broad based benefits. Researchers will be engaged in world-class research on identifying what is really needed by legal practitioners. UK legal practitioners gain a competitive edge in bringing innovative products and services quickly to market.
We recognise that for law firms to share their long-term commercial strategies with academic researchers requires the foundation of a trusting relationship at the level of individuals and their immediate teams.
We would like you to consider how Government can help initiate and support such relationships for a broad range of law firms of different sizes and types, and the implications of the varying characteristics of different sectors.

profitSome would say this is exactly what law professors should be doing. However, even IP Draughts in his most irritable moments would admit that there is a role for legal academics that is not focussed on making greater profits for the partners of Freshfields and other law firms. Even if this helps the UK economy as a whole: legal services are a small but steady contributor to the UK’s balance of payments.

Coming back to the needs of industry, IP Draughts would like to suggest that all parties engaging in large collaborations between academia and industry, including their business and legal advisers, should be required to attend an induction course in which they learn about the priorities of the other party in the collaboration. The course should take at least a couple of hours for each side of the collaboration, and should cover such topics as:

  • legal purpose of the organisation and associated constraints (eg charity laws, or Companies Act duties)
  • organisational and individual objectives and priorities
  • how this project fits within the larger objectives of the organisation
  • what individuals are judged on (eg peer-reviewed publications, helping make a profit)
  • management structures, including decision-making authority

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Filed under Commercial negotiation, universities

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