University-industry tie-ups yield ‘pure’ research too, study shows

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Research collaborations between academia and industry are not just for commercial pursuits.

By Clara Chooi 

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University and business collaborations have historically produced a significant proportion of basic or “pure” research, a study has shown.

This debunks the belief that corporate tie-ups serve solely as a means to a commercial end, and hardly ever yield results to broaden knowledge in a particular field.

Additionally, the study undertaken by Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Transformative Innovation found that journal articles with both university and private-sector authors achieve higher citation rates than those written exclusively by either party.

The findings discussed recently by Times Higher Education are yet-to-be-published but lay the foundation for a strong argument on the benefits of university-business partnerships to the scientific community, industry and wider society.

“It flies in the face of the intuition that once you bring corporations on board, you’ll be going for super-applied, shallow pieces of analysis that have a ready commercial return,” the study’s lead researcher Russell Thomson was quoted saying in THE’s report.

Basic vs applied research

In simple terms, basic, “pure” or “fundamental” research is curiosity-driven and seeks to expand human knowledge in underexplored fields.

Exploratory and theoretical in nature, this form of research has no practical end-goal in mind or clear examples of its applications.

It is conducted both systematically and methodically but with only one objective at its core, that is, to explore the unknown. Its findings add new knowledge to existing knowledge and lay the foundation for applied research.

Applied research, on the other hand, is conducted to solve a real-world problem with a solution that has commercial applications.

Unlike pure research, it is practical in nature and direct in its approach, and seeks answers to a specific question or set of questions. This is done by studying a particular set of circumstances, the results of which are then used to identify correlation to corresponding circumstances.

Applied research leads to the development of new products, technologies and processes.

The ‘commercialisation’ dilemma

In the global technological race to the top, universities are facing increasing pressure from industry and government to foster industry collaborations for the purpose of commercializing research findings.

But while the socio-economic benefits are clear, the sentiment is that the push does not come without its risks.

According to Canadian researchers Timothy Caulfield and Ubaka Ogbogu from the University of Alberta’s Law Centre, these risks include the premature implementation and use of research findings, ethics violations, skewed health policies and the creation of science “hype”, among other things.

This weighs on universities, resulting in the loss of public trust in these institutions and affect research funding opportunities, the duo’s paper in the US National Library of Medicine said.

The researchers also cited several studies revealing concerns raised by the scientific community on this commercialization pressure, one of which concluded in 2014 that the “government-initiated emphasis on commercialization” of US university research “may undermine open paths toward novel technologies and hinder explorations of unknown fields.”

People, profit and planet

In such a landscape, the Swinburne study findings may well be the antithesis to the argument.

Thomson said with more pressure being laid on universities to work more closely with industry, his team’s study provides rare insight into the likely outcome of such partnerships.

For the study, said to be the largest of its kind to focus on university-business research tie-ups, his team examined 14 years of US-only data, specifically the people involved in these researches, the types of research, the fields they favour and the impact made.

They pulled information from Clarivate’s Web of Science journal articles database, from which they identified six million US companies affiliated to authors of peer-reviewed publications.

They then cross-checked those names against 2.5 million entities from the Orbis database of companies, producing an inventory of articles co-written by US academics and corporate researchers between 2000 and 2014.

From the pile, the proportion of US journal articles with corporate researchers remained at a steady 5 percent throughout the period, negating a previous finding in 2015 that claimed this figure was on the decline.

Nearly half the corporate publications involved collaborations with universities and of this, a good 28 percent appeared in journals specializing in basic or “pure” research. This is lower than the 43 percent of papers authored exclusively by university academics but higher than the 24 percent of paper done purely by corporate researchers.

Thomson said he suspected major companies had always conducted their own basic research.

The study also found that collaboratively written papers had significantly higher citation rates than those written exclusively by either academics (59 percent higher) or corporate researchers (79 percent higher) in disciplines like pharmacology, biochemistry, applied physics and environmental sciences.

The same pattern did not, however, apply to the field of engineering and electrics, where the average citation rates of university-only papers were the highest.

Thomson, however, told THE that it was too early yet to conclude that universities simply needed to collaborate with industry to increase their citations.

“It could be that the studies that were collaborative had more resources invested in them, or something like that,” he said.

THE said the team is now rerunning the project to include smaller firms and will conduct similar studies on different countries.

U2B has reached out to Thomson to comment further on the study.