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Fruitful Collaborations With Industry

The primary purpose, and for many the beauty, of science lies in pushing the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake. Academic scientists lucky enough to find a position in a supportive institutional and funding framework usually enjoy the freedom to take their research where their curiosity carries them.

But science also has important economic implications, and countries across and beyond Europe are implementing new measures to ensure that research with industrial promise fulfils its economic potential. Initiatives promoting interactions between academia and industry are sprouting up all over Europe, guided partly by the European Commission's Lisbon strategy. One result is that scientists carrying out research of potential commercial interest have new opportunities to interact with industry, which can lead to new science, extra funding, and broader career horizons. But there are also some practical and ethical concerns.

A practical and intellectual challenge

Sometimes, contact with industry means the opportunity to see their research applied in the real world, something some researchers crave. In the United Kingdom, Nottingham University's Clean Technology Group is working on green chemistry, replacing conventional solvents with environmentally friendly alternatives. "We tend to have several enquiries from companies during the course of a year," says Paul Hamley, a technology-transfer scientist in the Clean Technology Group. "Part of my job is to ... find out what their problem is and decide whether our technology may be applicable to the type of chemistry or material they are making."

Sometimes new projects result, providing opportunities for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers--not to mention the PIs--to experience commercialisation and industrial science. This "forces us to tackle ... real problems which are often quite difficult," Hamley says. And because industry expects results, "you have to look a bit harder, try different things." This approach yields obvious benefits for the industrial partners, but there are also advantages on the basic-science side, Hamley says: "We often find things from our collaborations that we can apply in pure research. Each area strengthens the other."

"It is always profitable to interact with creative people who have different culture[s] and habits," says Jean-Pierre Lasota-Hirszowicz of the Astrophysics Institute in Paris, whose field--theoretical astrophysics--does not provide many opportunities to interact with industry. "It can also provide a severe test of research results. You can publish wrong results, but it is much more difficult to produce and sell a product based on such results."

Companies turn to university labs for a wide variety of reasons, but "first of all [is] the technical know-how," says Stefan Knerr, CEO of Vision Objects, a handwriting recognition software company based in Nantes, France. Knerr says access to academic expertise is especially important to companies that, like Vision Objects, rely on "very innovative and emerging technology." Companies turn to academic labs for "competences that are important to have, but not enough to hire people," Knerr says. When, last year, Vision Objects was developing software to recognize Arabic handwriting, they called on academic linguists. Companies also seek the chance "to generate out-of-the-box thinking," Knerr says. When there's a problem with one of your products or processes and you can't figure it out, or when you need new, pioneering ideas to get you unstuck, "it's good to meet a research lab."

An extra source of funding

Academics who choose to collaborate with industry gain "access to funding sources that would otherwise be outside of their reach," says Elena Castro Martínez, a scientist at the Valencia Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Management in Spain. Castro Martínez, who studies innovation and technology transfer and has contributed to many recent policies for science and technology, says the extra money doesn't just come from the private sector. In Spain, regional and national incentives mean that university departments with links to industry tend to attract more public funding. In other countries, including the United Kingdom, academics who take on real-world issues are eligible for pots of money basic scientists can't exploit. "More and more, research councils have research grants to address issues of the society like clean fuel," Hamley says.

An additional professional avenue

Interacting with companies is also a good way for lab heads to create new professional pathways for the scientists they are training. "This is extremely important ... because the public system cannot absorb all the students," Castro Martínez says. Many governments in Europe now offer programmes such as the Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche in France or the Torres-Quevedo programme in Spain, which encourage companies to fund Ph.D. students. "That is an excellent instrument, because that allows a young person that wants to work on a Ph.D. to do that in collaboration with a research lab and a company at the same time," Knerr says. "It is a very good way to recruit" for the company, and it allows Ph.D. students to "build a good relation with a company and create [their] own profile" within the industry.

Risks and rewards

Scientists entering into collaborations with industry should be aware of the potential pitfalls. At a Chicago conference in April 2005, Tadataka Yamada, who at the time was president of the Association of American Physicians, said that most relationships between pharmaceutical companies and academic scientists "are honestly motivated, highly productive, mutually beneficial, and supportive of the best interests of patient care. Nevertheless, there are many thorny issues affecting the relationship," including research integrity, data ownership, publication and disclosure, and conflicts of interest. Focusing on conflicts of interest, a 2006 report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology subsequently stated that the "risks include the potential to bias research, delay trainee progress, compromise efficient and wide dissemination of research results, harm human research participants, and decrease public trust in medical research."

Most governments and professional bodies have issued policies and guidance for collaborations between academia and industry. Funding organisations, too, usually have clear policies; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States, for example, "does not permit commercially sponsored research in its laboratories." In most cases, formal contracts need to be drawn up and fees, intellectual property, and confidentiality issues need to be laid out in advance of any partnership. "You have to ensure that you have [clear] agreements and ... talk to the right people in the company," Hamley says.

One key to a fruitful collaboration is ensuring that the risks and rewards are shared equitably. Elena Cattaneo, head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Pharmacology of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Milan in Italy, believes that collaborations with industry are appropriate when "the endeavour can bring equal opportunity and possibilities of scientific growth to both sides."

Academics should never lose sight of their own research agenda and the benefits they hope to gain from the collaboration. "It’s possible sometimes that you are trying to solve very difficult [industrial] problems which are not going to work and you put lots of time and effort into it," Hamley says. If that happens, industrial projects can slow other projects and the training of Ph.D. students and postdocs. Scientists should also make sure that "the company's aims fit well with the university's interests"--otherwise, they may feel pressure to shape their research to the demands of industry.

In dealing with industry, a certain amount of open-mindedness is inevitable. Knerr says that industry collaborators need to "accept the fact that a company has financial goals and ... the scientific aspect of things is not the most important"--a priority that not all academics can accept. "Particularly in France, people who work in public research labs really think that industry is evil because it is all about capital."

But that opinion is less common today than it used to be. Castro Martínez even thinks that contributing to industrial development is a social responsibility for scientists whose work has economic potential. It's up to the researchers to facilitate their results to companies through the creation of spin-offs, for example, and make sure the collaborations work to everyone's advantage. "It is up to us to structure it in a way that allows academics and industry together to catch bigger pieces of research," Cattaneo says.

Additional resources

- Partnerships for Research and Innovation between industry and universities--a guide to better practice from the Association for University Research and Industry Links

- Connecting with Business guide from the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

- FP7 funding opportunities for industry-academia collaborations

- FP7 new Joint Technology Initiatives

- Shared Responsibility, Individual Integrity: Scientists addressing conflicts of interest in biomedical research, a guide for academia-industry interactions from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

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