Industry Seeking University: Towards an Assessment Framework for Strategic Research Partnerships

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Large high-tech enterprises such as Microsoft, Intel, Philips, ASML and Siemens are developing new approaches for effective and efficient collaboration with higher education institutes. Recently, they have also been entering into long-term research partnerships with carefully selected universities across the globe. Dutch universities are following this trend and are successfully attracting global firms. Multiple Dutch universities are now home to joint laboratories or research centres.

The report Industry seeking university – The emergence of strategic public-private research partnerships published by the Rathenau Instituut shows how this new form of partnership offers strategic advantages for both the university and the firm. In addition, it also raises new questions about the public interests that are at stake, as all sorts of public and private interests converge in strategic partnerships. The study concludes that now is a good time to devise an integrated assessment framework that will allow stakeholders to weigh up and balance the various interests.

The report is based on a study of the literature, three case studies of partnerships in the Netherlands (Chemelot InSciTe, DELTA Lab and ARCNL) and interviews and workshops with experts and stakeholders.

A new type of public-private research partnership

Strategic research partnerships are more selective and exclusive, closer and longer lasting than other types of public-private cooperation in research. What typifies the strategic nature of such partnerships is the involvement of senior management at both the universities and the firm in the decision-making processes. The partners intend to build a relationship with each other, a necessity if they are to cooperate closely and trust each other enough to share knowledge, data, systems and facilities. The aim is to reduce or bridge the gap (geographical, cognitive, social, organisational) between university and industry in a variety of ways, for example through frequent personal contact between academic and industry researchers.

New opportunities

For universities, strategic partnerships are a way to conduct high-level research and to attract and retain talented researchers. The partnership may also make their research more relevant for industry and society. Moreover, such partnerships help to maintain the Netherlands’ appeal as a knowledge hub; they attract R&D investment in the knowledge economy by offering investors knowledge rather than tax benefits. For firms, often multinationals, partnerships enable quick and effective absorption of the latest scientific knowledge, so they have better access to public knowledge and researchers than other parties, such as SMEs.

Considerations and trade-offs

These new opportunities also give rise to new considerations and trade-offs. Strategic partnerships serve both public and private interests, so that the closely collaborating partners combine ‘border crossings’ with keeping each other at an appropriate arm’s length to avoid conflicts of interest. In fact, strategic partnerships call for a new way of working and a research culture in which both partners share responsibility for striking the right balance between academic and commercial interests.

Towards an assessment framework

Strategic partnerships are still in the throes of development. Not only universities and firms are involved, also policymakers in different domains and tiers of government, like enterprise and innovation policy, science policy and regional and local development policy. Therefore, now is a good time to devise an integrated assessment framework that will help stakeholders to take an informed decision as to whether they want to enter into or support a strategic partnership, and on which conditions.

A sound assessment framework should in any event address the following issues:

  • How does a strategic partnership impact the access to public knowledge and researchers of firms outside the partnership?
  • How does a strategic partnership impact research agendas and the balance between the various academic, social and economic agendas that mobilise science?
  • Knowledge generation and technological advances are crucial assets in the battle for economic and military power. Does a strategic partnership help to strengthen the regional / national / European economy or does it boost the economy of global competitors? Is it contributing to the outflow of knowledge and (top-class) researchers to other countries, or is it in fact bringing about an influx of knowledge and talent?
  • How does a strategic partnership fit in with the university’s long-term perspective on the knowledge institution that it wants to be for stakeholders (and which ones)? How does it fit in with the government’s long-term outlook on the research and science system?
  • How does a strategic partnership tie in with the regional development strategy? How does a strategic partnership impact the dynamism and vitality of regional ecosystems for R&D and innovation?

Reference

Tjong Tjin Tai, S.Y., J. van den Broek, T. Maas, T. Rep and J. Deuten (2018). Industry seeking university – The emergence of strategic public-private research partnerships. Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut

Author: Sue-Yen Tjong Tjin Tai, Rathenau Instituut

Image credit: Rikkers Infographics