Commercial Road

Britain’s strength as an engineering nation has waxed and waned over the years; there’s no doubt about it. But the strength of our research and development base, in both engineering and science, has never been in doubt. The UK punches above its weight, and British-trained researchers are in demand all over the world. But does the country make the most of this expertise? A recent report from Cambridge University suggests that policymakers have been getting it wrong for decades.

The strength of UK research sometimes creates as many worries as it does plaudits: poor levels of pay in the UK leading to ‘brain drains’, for example. One major concern has been a perceived weakness in commercialising technologies, and successive governments have searched for a winning formula, a way to make sure that researchers contribute to industry in the most effective way, for decades.

In the report from the UK Innovation Research Centre, authors David Connell and Jocelyn Probert argue that big, multi-partner research collaborations, such as those fostered by the Technology Strategy Board, the EPSRC and the European Union, aren’t the best way to get research into the commercial stream. In fact, they say, it’s sometimes best not to involve the universities at all. It’s small technology-focused companies which are often the best source of commercial ideas, they say, and these are neglected.

The argument is that SMEs, particularly university spin-outs, should undertake commercial R&D contracts from larger companies, focused on solving customer problems and developing new products. This generates business for the companies, leading to more jobs for technology graduates in a commercial environment (and hopefully boosting rates of pay); it also, they say, tends to create more ideas for proprietary products and spurs the creation of further start-ups to develop and commercialise them. This is the approach used around Cambridge, and the success of that region speaks for itself, they argue.

Very interesting stuff, especially for The Engineer and its readers. Our annual awards has recognised and celebrated collaboration between universities and industry for the past three years, and we’ve looked at many projects where this approach has led to valuable commercial products. But this year, we’re expanding the awards to cover all kinds of collaboration, including those between small and large companies. It’ll be fascinating to see whether Connell and Probert’s conclusions are reflected in the award entries.

In the meantime, we’re still no closer to finding an ideal solution for getting the most out of our research base. Should we follow Germany’s example, where the Fraunhofer Institutes coordinate and foster collaboration between industry and academia on projects with long lead-times? Does the US provide a better template, with a network of national laboratories and focused, industry-led R&D? Or is our emerging culture of entrepreneurship already laying the foundations for a stronger commercial technology base? As ever, we’re very keen to hear your thoughts. And please take a moment to vote in our online poll

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor