The barriers to academic engagement with enterprise: a social scientist’s perspective

Comments on an article by L. Reichenfeld published in 2011.

Barriers to academic engagement

The original article

Reichenfeld, L. (2011) ‘The barriers to academic engagement with enterprise: a social scientist’s perspective’, in Howlett, R. J. (ed.) Innovation through Knowledge Transfer 2010. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg (Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies), pp. 163–176. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-20508-8_14.

Comments on the article

Linda Reichenfeld makes some excellent points about the value of non-commercial academic entrepreneurship. She argues that academic entrepreneurship should not only be about making a profit. Transferring knowledge from academia to a partner organisation can have beneficial impacts which are not commercial, for example benefits to society. Therefore, academic entrepreneurship should include partnerships with non-commercial social enterprises, for example, non-government organisations, charities and not-for-profit organisations.

Reichenfeld says university collaboration has traditionally consisted of science and technology disciplines transferring knowledge to industry in the form of IP and spin-offs. However, social scientists, artists and creative academics have been less inclined to get involved, “perceiving knowledge transfer as something that only applies to goggle wearing, lab-coated technicians”. Reichenfeld says social scientists also have important roles to play in knowledge exchange which benefits public and social organisations as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Importantly, an exchange of knowledge aimed at public and social organisations holds great potential “to engage academics who hitherto have been disinclined to engage with largely technology-based knowledge transfer projects”.

A focus on making a profit can be a problem

Reichenfeld argues that an emphasis on making a profit will discourage some academics from being entrepreneurs. She says that if the processes for proposing a partnership with a non-profit are focused on commercial factors, then the language of for-profit ventures “not only acts as a potential deterrent to social organisations but also to non-business academics who find the business context and language equally off-putting”. Further, “successful partnerships require both parties to share a common language and at least part of their identity”.

If an academic has an identity which is philosophically and ethically against profit making and in favour of social organisations, charities or social movements then they are unlikely to want to collaborate or network with business executives. Reichenfeld notes that some colleagues in her own department (which is largely social sciences) consider that working with the business world to be “going over to the dark side”.

As an example, the article describes a partnership between a university in the UK and a local social housing organisation which provided affordable homes for people in housing need. Instead of aiming to produce a profit, the partnership aimed to save £100,000, for example by reducing vandalism. The partnership required a serious piece of research to be done. In this partnership and in similar partnerships, financial savings were more important than profits. Such projects may also produce data which helps the design of future housing projects.

A broader view of knowledge transfer

In Scottish universities there has been “a broader interpretation of knowledge transfer objectives which includes community and social benefits in addition to commercial gains. Given many academics do not see themselves as entrepreneurs this is a powerful incentive to those who hitherto regarded knowledge transfer as only applicable to engineers and scientists”.

The article notes the OECD view of knowledge transfer is that “it should incorporate social as well as economic impacts”. Reichenfeld uses the term “knowledge transfer partnership” (KTP) instead of academic entrepreneurship, which avoids profit-making connotations.

Barriers between academia and others

On the topic of barriers between academia and those outside academia, the article notes other studies which show that the language of writing for academic publications creates a barrier. Academics are rewarded for publishing research in high-impact journals instead of presenting their research in a more widely understood format. The problem occurs in most disciplines. This differences in language are an aspect of the differences between researchers and potential collaborators.

These differences in language are one of the key reasons this blog exists! The literature on academic entrepreneurship is generally written in an academic style which is difficult for practitioners of knowledge transfer to penetrate. Hopefully articles like this will help to reduce the barriers in this particular field.

Source of data

Examples of UK non-commercial knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs) for social enterprises.