University research for the benefit of others: part of the culture of higher education

HE is focused on getting the benefits of our research out into the world where it has impact

Universities are committed to having a beneficial impact in the wider world, including economic impact. Much of this impact, outside of academia, is achieved via knowledge exchange which is the two-way flow of knowledge between universities and businesses, the public and third sector and the general public. 

Every university in Scotland has a strategic commitment to knowledge exchange.[1]

One of the ways[2] universities achieve economic impact is to encourage and support academics to undertake knowledge exchange (KE) with businesses to share expertise and to help businesses to innovate and grow.

Universities have developed schemes which respond to key motivations for their research staff, as well as creating an enabling environment and providing staff with the necessary skill set for KE. Each institution has created specific policies, and approached this in a slightly different way as appropriate to their staff body and the diverse missions and specialisms each institution has, which can mean they work with a very different range of sectors.

Universities encourage staff to work with businesses and others in the following ways.

Incentivising staff

knowledge exchange is now one of the key considerations universities use when deciding to promote staff

The promotion criteria[3] for each university that Universities Scotland has reviewed includes knowledge exchange as a key factor for academic staff to progress in their careers.

Universities have created specific career pathways for those who excel at knowledge exchange

Many universities have implemented career pathways for their staff who particularly excel at knowledge exchange. A particular example is University of Strathclyde’s Knowledge Exchange staff category which has over 70 staff involved with two-thirds drawn from outside the university. This staff category[4] allows individuals to progress from an early career stage to professorial level through a focus on KE which can include working with industry, influencing policy and delivery of professional development for others. The University recognises and rewards these activities from all staff but puts particular emphasis on them in this career path.

Universities can offer staff financial incentives to work with businesses

All of the universities we spoke to provide financial incentives to encourage academics to work with industry.  This can happen in a number of ways including sharing the consultancy fees paid by the business partner with the member of staff, doing something similar with the fees involved in licensing a new product or concept or joint ownership of a new company spun out of a university. Some have reward schemes which recognise a staff member’s exceptional contribution to KE. The University of Edinburgh does this through its Contribution Reward where there has been an exceptional contribution to KE and industry engagement.[5]

Providing the right skills

All universities provide their academic staff with opportunities for professional development when it comes to working with businesses

All universities have staff working to provide professional development opportunities for researchers at all levels which are aimed at university-business partnerships. Part of this sits within the culture of entrepreneurship that all universities in Scotland are working to embed [6]. Universities can also provide technical advice and training on key, technical issues such as intellectual property to the ‘softer’ skills  such as communication.

Creating an enabling environment

Universities are focused on a culture of impact across their institutions

Scottish universities are highly engaged with culture change within institutions and are working hard to embed a culture of ‘impact’ across the whole organisation.

Universities have delivered a 22% increase in the volume of knowledge exchange they have delivered in a twelve year period as measured by the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework[7] [8]. This is a considerable increase considering that culture change is a long-term process and it can take time to yield results. The measure used to track performance records innovation activities such as collaborative research, contract research, professional development provision and consultancy. As such it gives an important insight as to the types of increased engagement between academics, businesses and the public and third sectors.

Universities are the third most likely partner to business for innovation according to Scottish Enterprise’s recent review of companies that receive innovation support. The review commented positively that the number of innovative partnerships between business and universities was ‘striking’.[9]

Research with ‘impact’ has been given further importance in the most recent UK-wide research assessment exercise (2014). Impact is now a key factor in how the quality of university research is assessed.

The Dowling Review noted that including ‘impact’ in this assessment has helped to stimulate a more positive attitude amongst academics toward collaboration with business.[10] Scotland performs more highly than the UK average when assessed on research impact with 86% of Scottish research judged to be ‘outstanding’ or ‘very considerable’.[11]

We interviewed 10 institutions[12] to understand how this works within the institution, considering the diverse structures across the sector, and found that there is clear executive responsibility for KE assigned to a member of the senior management team, a central support structure for KE and KE is embedded across all parts of the university to offer support within each department. Delivering impact is therefore important, and institution-wide in each university.

Taken together this evidence indicates the significant, and successful, work within institutions to provide the right environment for KE.


Universities are supporting staff to get more experience working with, or in, industry and to increase opportunities learn from and create the necessary connections to succeed in working with businesses

Universities have many routes to enable staff to experience working with industry, for example:

  1. Secondment opportunities to give academics the skills and support to generate impact (e.g. via EPSRC’s Impact Accelerator Accounts or BBSRC’s Flexible Interchange Programme)
  2. Research leave schemes e.g. University of Stirling offers a 6-month research leave scheme[13] designed to encourage and support mutually beneficial relationships with business and industry
  3. Sponsored academic leadership positions, and bringing industry staff into institutions to create the environment to help academic staff to see success, establish networks, as well as benefitting educational provision for students.

Encouraging relationship building is critical to enabling university-business collaboration as strong, trust-based relationships are at the heart of successful collaboration[14] so whilst difficult to measure universities are working to provide opportunities for academics to engage with individuals from industry.

Sharing best practice

Universities are continuing to work to improve their good innovation performance and are delivering the action plan of the Innovation Scotland Forum. The information collected in this process will be shared and discussed amongst all Scottish institutions via the Research and Commercialisation Directors’ Group.

Key Facts:

  1. Every university in Scotland has a strategic commitment to knowledge exchange, including working with businesses.
  2. Universities have all developed ways to incentivise staff to work with businesses in order to realise beneficial economic impact from research expertise.
  3. Universities include knowledge exchange in promotion criteria, have specific career pathways and financially incentivise staff to work with businesses.
  4. Universities provide skills training and are working to further embed an enabling culture to promote knowledge exchange.
  5. There has been a 22% increase in knowledge exchange activity from 2002-03 to 2014-15.