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The potential and limitations of university-business collaborations

By Peter Jonson - posted Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Finally, two giants are stirring.  The subject: Business-University Research Collaboration.

The giants in question are the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Group of Eight (G8) research universities.  G8/BCA sponsored a visit to Australia by Richard Lambert, author of a recent UK review of Business-University collaboration.

Last week in Canberra, Richard Lambert participated in a one-day forum on this important subject, which I see as part of a necessary third wave of economic reform. Lambert's views about the UK, it was generally agreed, could also be applied fairly directly to Australia.  They certainly accord closely with the views of the Australian Institute of Commercialisation (AIC).  My presentation is available on the AIC website.


During the forum, Lambert spoke about things that better University-Business collaboration cannot do.  This list includes:

  • Be expected to generate large sums of money for universities.
  • Be allowed to reduce focus on long-term, curiosity-based research - of the sort that led to the discovery of the double-helix structure, for example.
  • Limit academic freedom to participate fully in the community of scholars, to publish, to speak freely, etc.

Financing long-run, curiosity-based research cannot be left entirely to market forces and, in particular, university assistance to business cannot be left to market forces - hence the "third-stream" funding in the UK.

Assistance to industry is not about funding near-term commercial needs.  Furthermore, existing measures of the success of collaboration such as numbers of spin-outs from universities is at best only a very partial measure of success, and in fact excessive focus on numbers of spin-outs will be counter-productive.  The AIC advocates measuring "Value added", which will be more difficult but which will give a far better picture of achievements and potential.

Lambert stressed that none of this is easy, to which we give a hearty "hear hear."  In the UK, serious commitment to the cause of Business-University collaboration has been driven by Treasury and in particular the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.  In my talk I emphasised, as I have been doing for several years, that it is vital for the research sector to engage with Treasury to make the case for more funding and new programs in language that Treasury understands and with arguments that Treasury finds compelling.  (I recommend the AIC-sponsored papers by Gans and Stern and that on "The economic impact of commercialisation ..." - available on the AIC website - for our attempts on this front to date.)

During the lunch break, Lambert spoke at the National Press Club. Sadly, there is no press report that I have yet seen. Here he emphasised the convergence of views around the world on University-Business collaboration. He cited, in addition to his UK review, initiatives in the European Commission, Germany, Sweden, China, Russia and Japan. Clearly giants other than G8 and the BCA are stirring.


He asked "Why should we care?".

  • There are big changes in how business does its research - outsourcing to universities and research agencies is increasingly the case for major companies.
  • Society generally is giving universities a bigger role - and universities are struggling to keep pace with demands made upon them.
  • Governments everywhere are trying to create more innovative economies.

Australia, like the UK, fights above its "natural weight" in science and technological research.  But neither country has a good record in bringing to market the results of the ideas generated by this research.

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About the Author

Peter Jonson is a professional director and economist. He is a director of National Forum, Chair of the Federal Govenment's CRC Committee, Founding Chair of Australian Institute for Commercialisation (2002-2007), and Chair Emeritus of the Melbourne Institute Advisory Board. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Peter is founder and editor of, a virtual guide to economics, politics and investments.

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