Marcell Tessenyi (BSSL Ltd) and Jeronimo Bernard-Salas (ACRI-ST) present results from a community survey on academic-industry collaboration.
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Collaborations between industry and academia are becoming increasingly important to policymakers and grant-giving organisations. This is particularly evident in the European Commission’s ambitious and demanding requirements for demonstrating the impact of Horizon Europe projects on European science, the economy and wider society. If we are to ensure planetary science remains attractive to funders, it is pertinent for our community members to increase attention on industry-academia relationships and have a good understanding of the attitudes, experiences and insights of our peers.
From August to October 2021, Europlanet’s industry team began a consultation that aims to capture the perspectives of the planetary science community on working with industry. A survey was designed to include both statistical information and qualitative feedback relating to overall themes and observations. A link to the survey was circulated via the Europlanet mailing list (audience around 2000), and approximately 40 responses were received. The survey will be re-issued yearly to monitor and track the evolution in the responses.
The low response rate in this first iteration of the survey is, perhaps, a result in itself. However, the information gathered is already very valuable and will help Europlanet’s industry and policy teams to focus efforts in developing effective approaches in supporting industry-academic collaboration. The distribution of the career stages of the respondents (Figure 1) indicated that the interest in the survey increased with the academic career stage. The respondents showed a range of experiences of collaborating with industry (Figure 2), with many having worked with small-sized companies, and a fairly even split between hardware and software-orientated organisations.
We asked the respondents who had worked with companies about the trigger that initiated their collaborations. We also asked them to share what was positive or negative about their experiences and what added-value they thought industry-related activities could bring to their scientific objectives. The highest responses for positive experiences and perceptions about collaborating with industry related to maximising research impact and career opportunities (Figure 3). Other positives identified in the qualitative feedback related to the way that industry works, including rigour in defining projects, quality standards and procedures, and precision in discussions and requests. The flexibility of Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs), opportunities to commercialise technology that universities are not able to develop, and finding new applications of research or potential sources of interesting scientific problems, were also mentioned as positives. Further perceived benefits related to professional development, such as finding alternatives to academic jobs, breaking down the misconception that one must stay permanently within either academia or industry, skill-sharing, and identifying new sources of funding.
These responses showed a wide range of positives for industry engagement that seemed to be beneficial to a career in academia. Highlighting such positives could have an impact on perceptions in the wider community about the benefits of collaboration with industry. We also asked the respondents for reasons that they may not have worked with industry, and tried to capture some of the negative perceptions (Figure 4).
Top of the list of reasons for lack of industry experience was that the occasion never came up, followed by a limited awareness of industry capabilities in research. This is perhaps the most valuable response from the survey, in that it shows where Europlanet and its network of industry and policy officers can help raise awareness and foster opportunities for such collaborations to take place.
Individual responses on negative perceptions highlighted differences in timescales and ways of working, issues with defining mutual benefits, and differing standards and procedures. Patents and other Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) – particularly relating to what can be published in science articles – were also mentioned as concerns. Companies are product oriented and researchers care about science and publishing, so these (and other) cultural differences can require both parties to adjust their mindset. Structural issues around the lack of flexibility in larger companies, the need to recognise companies’ financial needs, and administrative complications on the academic side were also cited as negatives. As career opportunities have often been raised as a good reason to work with industry, we asked respondents about their perception of what fraction of researchers they think remain exclusively in academia throughout their career (Figure 5). Most respondents indicated that they think the majority of academics shift from research to the private sector at some point, a likely result of the lack of permanent opportunities in academia.