Effective collaboration between universities and business brings a range of benefits to academics, companies, students and the UK economy.
For universities, engaging with companies can give access to data, equipment, expertise or networks beyond academia. It can also open new avenues of funding or opportunities to commercialise academic research. The value of such knowledge exchange activities to universities was over £4.2bn in 2014/15, 6% higher than the previous year. Academics in the 2015 Dowling Review of Business-University Collaborations cited many advantages to collaborating with companies such as: increasing their employability and improving their job prospects; working on challenging, interesting and “real-world” problems; and seeing the social value of their research.
Universities and individual researchers also increasingly need to demonstrate the economic and societal impact of publically funded research. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) was the first time universities were evaluated on the impact of their research and it is expected to be a significant component of the next REF assessment. Nearly half of the impact case studies submitted to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for REF 2014 involved industrial collaboration.
For companies, changes in business models and the rate of progress in science and technology have led to a greater emphasis on establishing partnerships with academic researchers.Businesses also increasingly need to engage with universities to fulfil their skills requirements. In 2015 the Confederation of British Industry reported that 68% of businesses already have some type of links with universities and 35% of businesses are looking to extend their interactions still further.
From a student standpoint, the introduction of loans for undergraduates is one factor that has prompted a greater awareness of the need to connect academic learning with employability. This need can be addressed through training and experiences so that students can gain wider skills as part of their time at university.
While there have been many reviews of the university-business engagement landscape over the last 10 years, none provide a breakdown by discipline. We have come across individual examples of good practice in university chemistry departments but to date, there has not been a review specific to the chemical sciences that identifies these existing successes and highlights opportunities for development.
Our research is a first step to doing this: building a university-based picture of the challenges and opportunities for university-business engagement in chemistry.
Twenty-five chemistry departments across the UK and Ireland told us about their interactions with companies across their research, enterprise, and teaching and training activities between September 2012 and September 2015. These 25 departments account for 54% of the undergraduate chemistry population across Ireland and the UK.
There is a long tradition of interaction between universities and companies in the chemical sciences and there are many examples of how departments and individuals approach this engagement in order to meet their specific needs. A recurring theme is the need to share this good practice across the community. Our research aims to help this process.
We have captured examples of what works well for chemistry, as well as what might be more widely applicable to other disciplines, so that academics looking to extend their business interactions can draw upon existing activities.