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Industry and academia must talk to translate science, panel says

Photonics innovation relies on stronger communication between universities and the commercial sector. Jessica Rowbury reports from the Photonex conference in Glasgow







The UK excels in research but must do better at translating good science into useful products, an audience at the SPIE Photonex conference heard in September. This relies, in part, on creating stronger links between academia and industry, so that photonics research can address real-world problems outside of the lab and provide greater benefit to society and the economy.   

The remarks were made during a panel session that discussed how the UK can improve photonics translational research. The Photonex exhibition and conference took place in Glasgow on 28-30 September, the first event since it was acquired by SPIE in 2019.

Invention vs innovation

According to the government’s most recent analysis, in 2018, the UK produced 7 per cent of global journal articles (third only to the US and China) and was behind 14 per cent of the most cited papers. Adjusted for size effect, since 2010, the UK has had a larger proportion of its research among the most widely cited in the world than any other country. The region makes up 1 per cent of the global population and its R&D budget is 3 per cent of the world total1.

Sir David Payne, director of the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), highlighted the importance of differentiating invention and innovation in measuring success. While the UK does excellently in invention, which he defined as ‘taking cash and turning it into ideas’, the country does not do so well, he said, in innovation, or ‘taking those ideas and turning them into cash’.

Payne, who has worked in both industry and academia, believes one cause of this is a lack of understanding between the academic and commercial worlds. ‘There is the academic and research and culture, which often characterises the good points and publishes them. And there is the industrial culture, which says you do it 1,000 times, and every time [needs to be] right. And those two cultures are, in many ways, different ends of the spectrum,’ he said. ‘We need to spend much more time understanding each other.’

Speeding up academic-university communication

Katarzyna Balakier, a Professor at University College London (UCL) and a photonics systems engineer at Airbus Defence and Space, suggested that placing researchers into industry settings would allow academics to gain a better understanding of the wants and needs of the industry. 

Balakier said that on research projects she has worked on, there were monthly meetings with industry partners, but it took months to come up with a solution for a simple issue because the communication wasn’t regular enough. 

Creating short-term industry placements for students would lead to better communication, and researchers gaining key insights more quickly, she explained: ‘The conversation is then not only limited to a few meetings; those researchers can actually work for a month within the industry and see what the priorities are – what the drivers are and what the industry is really trying to solve,’ she said. ‘So being there and being able to talk to industry on a daily basis.’

Corporate labs

On the contrary, making it easier for companies to exist within universities, as is the case in other regions, will improve academia-industry communication and links, Payne said.

‘Corporate labs within academia [in Singapore] is something they favour enormously, and a lot of British companies have corporate labs in Singapore. The universities allow corporate labs without bureaucracy, and that is huge for human interactions, because companies have got their own staff working alongside researchers,’ Payne explained. 

‘That does amazing things for communication. It’s not the usual model of “here’s some money, come back in a year’s time” – companies know, day-by-day, week-by-week, what’s happening with the research. But I would recommend that model.’

Dr Frances Saunders, trustee of The Royal Academy of Engineering, added that models such as corporate labs also help to prepare researchers for jobs in industry, helping to increase the much-needed supply of engineers into photonics.

Another way of opening up academia-industry conversations, according to Simon Andrews, who leads Fraunhofer UK Research, is for companies and universities to use specialised communications channels to support introductions and knowledge transfer. ‘During my days in industry I had a problem making a small plastic item with injection moulding. And I didn’t know whether I needed a plastics expert, a chemist, a material scientist, a physicist working in computational fluid dynamics – I didn’t know which department in which university to contact,’ he said. ‘A lot of companies struggle with the same thing.’

Andrews mentioned Interface as an example, a hub that connects businesses and industries to Scotland’s 23 higher education and research institutes. If a platform like this was used across the UK by every university, it would make communication more effective between both sectors, and in turn create better links.

‘[With Interface] you can file a query to the universities, and only those who are ready, willing and able to help you with your problem will come back with a response,’ he said. ‘It’s having a one-stop shop to ask those questions very, very quickly. It’s a small thing but something that makes a huge difference.’ 


International comparison of the UK research base, 2019 

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