This is the last of my entries describing my career to date, describing how I left the lab behind.
Research can be both a thrilling and tedious activity. Periods of monotony, carrying out similar experiments, interspersed with those exciting, potentially ground-breaking results, papers getting published or visits to conferences in exotic locations. However, towards the end of my second post-doc position I no longer got the same enjoyment from doing fundamental research to justify the slower times. This didn’t reflect on the work itself, which could well end up as something very exciting. I was becoming more interested in learning about the processes that convert, or translate, the results of research into something that makes a difference economically, politically or socially.
Consequently I ended up in my current role as “Business Science Fellow.” The job title may sound slightly grandiose, so what do I actually do? I like to say I work “at the interface” between University and industry* trying to create new links and develop existing ones between academics and companies. This type of work has been given a number of titles over the years, including “knowledge transfer” and “technology transfer”. To me, the associated descriptions are limited, suggesting only an outward looking approach to move knowledge or technology from the University to a company or another stakeholder. In reality, I engage with companies to work with the University too, specifically within the School of Chemistry. The ultimate goal is always to get both parties to collaborate on common problems which are more easily solved with an exchange of ideas and solutions between the two. From the University’s point of view, collaboration brings funding and the opportunities to explore new research avenues. University staff and students can benefit by being exposed to the commercial approach to research and technology development. Companies get access to the expertise and knowledge base of the University’s researchers and an opportunity to explore new ideas in a relatively low risk manner.
The concepts of Universities commercialising their research or acquiring industrial sponsorship are hardly new, but pressure (particularly in the UK) is growing for academics to demonstrate the “impact” of their research. Initially, this will manifest itself in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), which includes a section on impact. Longer term, scientists may find that after making the economic case to protect their share of government funding, they will need to quantify the returns from research grants. Of course, impact need not be solely defined in economic terms, but for much of science it is the most direct means of doing so and the easiest to measure. I’d also accept that there are legitimate questions around how the impact agenda will affect academic freedom or support for fundamental science, as well as turning scientists into something they are not. These are, perhaps, discussions for another day.
I won’t go into the specifics of my role here, as that will hopefully become clearer as I write more in the future. At times I feel a bit like a broker, setting up deals between companies and academics and I have to spend time managing contracts, financials and intellectual property. Networking both internally within the University and externally with businesses is critical and an aspect of the job I find particularly rewarding after spending all of 6 years in a laboratory. In contrast to a research job, I get to see and read about a wide range of technologies rather than focus in depth on one topic- I suppose there’s a bit of “jack of all trades” about it all. Admittedly, I lose that sense of control over particular research projects but for me that’s offset by seeing a more global view of science.
Most of my future blog posts will be related to my current, and future, jobs so will delve more into what I do. Details may at times be vague, to respect the confidentiality of those I work with. I will also update my “current activities” page as well with some of the projects I am working on.
*My research often involved electrochemistry, which investigates chemical and physical behaviour at the interface between a solid electrode and a liquid electrolyte.