Author: Natasha Rhys Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas
Wednesday 1st of March saw the second session of the Oxford SIUConversations. The talk was given by representatives from the Royal Society; Dr Katy Gearing and Dr Alasdair Taylor, who were highlighting the Society’s interest and efforts in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the sciences, as well as the current opportunities and challenges surrounding technology transfer and university-business collaborations.
What does the Royal Society do to support industry and innovation?
The talk was started off by Dr Katy Gearing, who is the Head of Industrial Engagement at the Royal Society. Before taking on her role at the Society, Dr Gearing did extensive industrial work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields, standing previously as Head of Biology at GlaxoSmithKline. When we think of the Royal Society, we often associate it with yearly election of prestigious scientists who then become ‘Fellows of the Royal Society’. The Royal Society is the world oldest academy and indeed stands as a fellowship, aiming to support excellence in all areas of science. Dr Gearing highlighted the many other roles the Royal Society has, from organising conferences and public engagement activities to providing advice on scientific policy.
Out of the ~1600 fellows currently at the Royal Society, it is interesting that only 8.5% have in fact declared industrial interest. Nationwide, there are 192,000 scientists working in the industrial sector, with two thirds of the UK’s research & development coming from industry. The UK is recognised as having an excellent record in industrial innovation and in 2014 the Royal Society launched an initiative to raise the profile of industrial science and innovation at the Society and beyond, as well as foster connections between academia, industry and the government. Dr Gearing made the audience aware of the Science, Industry and Translation committee who oversee this newer scheme, with representatives from companies such as AstraZeneca and funding bodies like the Wellcome Trust. Through this new initiative, scientists can now apply for numerous grants and awards from the Society to support industry and innovation. For example, the industry fellowship scheme funds up to 40 scientists at a given time to support collaborative projects between academia and industry. As of 2016, the Society offers a Translation and Innovation Award to help take an innovative idea from the proof-of-concept stage to a near-marketable product. In addition to financial support, the Society also gives advice on entrepreneurial and industrial-based careers, as well as means to develop skills in these areas. Dr Gearing ended her portion by highlighting the events that the Society runs to foster connections between academia, industry and the government. The ‘Transforming Our Future’ meetings are free and run on a range of applied subject areas. Topics in the past have included synthetic biology, machine learning and the environment.
What target areas do the Royal Society want to address in supporting industry and innovation?
Dr Alasdair Taylor, Industry Programme Manager at the Royal Society, started off his half of the talk with a piece of advice, “Do more things outside of your job”. As well as day-to-day research, he recommended that members of the audience should undertake activities to enhance their skill set, such as writing blogs or getting involved with learned societies, with Dr Taylor currently serving as Chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Early Career Network in addition to his role as manager. Dr Taylor’s research background is in green chemistry and he has previously worked on collaborative projects with academics and businesses in the fields such as sustainable chemical engineering, energy storage and food science.
In discussing current views on translating research into a commercial venture, Dr Taylor referred to the recently published “Building of Industrial Strategy”, a policy document detailing the current stance of the country on innovation and entrepreneurship. According to the report, the UK has an excellent record in creating businesses but often lacks initial insight into commercialisation of products, with businesses facing challenges when scaling up. Since the 80’s, the government has allowed universities to control their own commercialisation ventures. However, universities typically prioritised short-term funding and governance targets over the longer term benefits of commercialisation, which impede the scaling up of entrepreneurial ventures. During the Q&A session, Dr Gearing reiterated this point, emphasising the need to focus on long-term goals, as looking too short-term “can encourage the wrong behaviours” in entrepreneurial practice. Dr Taylor in his talk highlighted how there was a general lack of clarity and flexibility in policies surrounding commercialisation and technology transfer. Given the fact that 48% of research funding comes from businesses or industry, the Royal Society recognises that the ties between universities and businesses need to be strengthened, as well as increased professionalism in regards to technology transfer and knowledge exchange.
Entrepreneurship is increasingly recognised as a hot topic. As Dr Taylor pointed out, it allows for the creation of highly-valued companies, with many on the hunt for entrepreneurial thinkers. Knowledge of entrepreneurship might also be beneficial to one’s career options, especially given that fewer and fewer PhD students are taking an academic path. With this benefit to upcoming graduates, the Council for Science and Technology is now arguing that more students from STEM subjects should be taking some form of entrepreneurship education. These days, on average, only 4% of students receive training in entrepreneurship, a statistic that varies widely dependent on the subject and is a mere 2% for the life sciences. As well as identifying good practice in innovation, it is now the Royal Society’s aim to provide guidance and develop new ways for more students to receive entrepreneurship training.
Prior to the talk, Dr Gearing and Dr Taylor held a focus group with students and SIU members on ways to obtain entrepreneurial education and their views on how to integrate it into the undergraduate curricula. The Royal Society is continuing to collect evidence so that they and other National Academies might be able to provide standardised guidance to universities to support the professional development of their students.
Where can I learn more about the Royal Society’s Industry and Innovation activities?
More information on the Industry and Innovation sector at the Royal Society can be found at the following webpage (https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/industry-innovation/). Those seeking regular updates on the Royal Society’s activities can sign up to the Email Newsletter (https://royalsociety.org/stay-in-touch/email-newsletters/). Information on the ‘Transforming our Future’ meetings held by the Royal Society can also be found on the relevant webpage (https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/industry-innovation/transforming-our-future/).