Partnering with industry
Opening doors and windows
in the Ivory Tower
by Martha Crago
niversities are increasingly moving
from being ivory towers where research
is conducted in a societally detached
manner into a rich nexus of research
partnerships. We have industry partners,
University industrial research partnerships
are important to Canadian industries. Of our
country’s total Gross Expenditures on Research
and Development (GERD) in 2012, 38 percent
was performed by the higher education sector.
One of Dalhousie University’s researchers
has a long-standing partnership with a particular company. When I asked why he liked working
with this partner, he responded enthusiastically:
“Exposure to real problems and developing real
solutions. It is very exciting and rewarding to see
one’s work incorporated into products that people use every day.” The benefits to his graduate
students are high funding levels for them and
for their research, frequent participation in international conferences and intense interaction
with industrial partners that translates into jobs.
There are, nevertheless, some compromises.
Publications and disclosures have to be approved
by the company that holds all the intellectual
property and they can be held up for six months
until patents are filed. He and his students can-
not participate in Natural Sciences and Engi-
neering Research Council networks and cannot
work with other companies. This IP and exclu-
sivity arrangement is only possible at a university
such as Dalhousie or Waterloo where 100 per-
cent of IP goes to the researcher.
This researcher’s situation is in some ways
exceptional. However, many others have told me
about enriching experiences for them and their
students, and the importance of building relationships with their partners by nurturing trust.
One said that trust is built by producing results
in a timely manner, by engaging partners as
much as they want to be included, and by producing regular progress reports.
Professors also need to be attentive and
responsible to the industrial partner for the work
of their students. A positive experience with a
partner can lead to more partnering possibilities
and these possibilities can often be expanded by
In Canada, several governmental funding
mechanisms support university industrial partnerships. At NSERC alone, the Strategy of Partnerships and Innovations supports a range of
programs, from small NSERC Engage grants to
Industrial Research Chairs and Collaborative
Research and Development grants, all of them
awarded for excellence. Such programs have
doubled the number of university-industry projects annually, with total industry contributions
of close to $200 million over the last five years.
The majority of NSERC-supported projects are
with small- and medium-sized enterprises (Research
Money, January 26, 2015).
Our universities generally endorse industrial
research partnerships, but there are some growing
pains. It is not clear that we are fully supportive
when it comes to tenure adjudication, where
contracts and business reports frequently do not
carry the same weight as research grants and
peer-reviewed publications. Certain members of
the academy frown on industrial research partnerships, believing they produce less worthy science. While it is true that there is not the same
peer-reviewed excellence evaluation for contracts, this doesn’t mean that they do not have a
significant importance for researchers, students
It’s also not clear that all university researchers
who do take part in industrial partnerships appreciate the importance of including overhead costs
in their contracts or understand the complexity
of legal oversight of their contractual arrangements. Some overlook or forget that the physical
space for their contract work and the legal expertise are provided by the university and that the
university needs to recover the full costs of
In addition, like any good partnership, industrial research partnerships need to be based on
recognizing the value of the partnership, on
trust, and on the ability to meet the other’s needs.
They are not a replacement for other forms of
research. They are an addition. Our academies
need to be safe havens that, at the same time,
have open doors and windows to the world.
Martha Crago is vice-president,
research, at Dalhousie
University. Her column
appears in every second issue
of University Affairs.
“Good partnerships are
based on value, trust and
ability to meet needs.”
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