Magazine article Times Higher Education

Innovation's Core Values

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Innovation's Core Values

Article excerpt

Britain needs Fraunhofer centres as well as Catapults if the 'invention revolution' is to materialise, asserts Tim Holt.

In his recent review, Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, Sir Andrew Witty suggested that universities should adopt a third core strategic goal alongside teaching and research: facilitating economic growth by developing and commercialising technologies.

But the German experience suggests that trying to force academics to think like entrepreneurs may not be the best way to achieve results.

Germany has long been looked upon as a model for how to harness the best scientific research to drive industrial progress. When setting out the aims for the UK's National Physical Laboratory in 1901, the aeronautics pioneer Sir Richard Glazebrook noted that Germany enjoyed "a perfected alliance between science and commerce". If England was losing supremacy in manufacturing and commerce it was because of "the failure to utilise...the lessons taught by science, while Germany, once the country of dreamers and theorists, has now become intensely practical", he said.

But while university research is a vital source of innovation and commercial opportunity, the academy and business fundamentally don't mix. It has often been noted that universities' timescales and ways of working don't always match those of industry, and there are often greatly differing expectations on the two sides. To work effectively with industry, you need to have a commercial mindset, be focused on delivery and be used to working to contract timescales. You also require a pragmatic, industry-led approach, focused on solving industrial problems in the short term, while working with universities to develop scientific excellence over the long term.

Since 1949, this role in Germany has been filled by its Fraunhofer institutes: expert research and development organisations that sit between universities and business and deliver research contracts for industry while working closely with pioneering university researchers.

Before the last UK general election, both major parties commissioned reports on how the UK could improve the industrial translation of its research. Sir James Dyson (in Ingenious Britain, commissioned by the Conservatives) and Hermann Hauser (in The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK, commissioned by Labour) agreed that a version of Fraunhofers was what the UK needed. …

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