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UK universities and European industry: inseparable research partners?

University-industry interactions

Universities and their business sector partners (‘industry’) are at the heart of the UK science and innovation system. Many university-industry interactions (UIIs) start with, or are supported by, joint research between academic researchers and industry R&D staff employed by research-active business enterprises. Close personal relationships between individuals may also arise from the job mobility of postdocs, researchers or professors who cross over from academia and the corporate sector, or from those with temporary or part-time affiliations on either side.

UIIs are the connective elements of university-business research projects and joint R&D networks. These organisational environments are difficult to create and nurture into sustainable, collaborative ecosystems, especially in the case of international partners and public-private connections.

The UK university research system is an integral part of international and global R&D networks (Adams & Gurney, 2016). Research-active firms located in European Union member states represent a large share of those university-industry connections. The UK’s participation in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, and its underpinning research-related UIIs, has in fact become an essential part of the UK science system (Royal Society, 2016).

With Brexit approaching, many policy-relevant issues and urgent questions come to the fore (Policy Institute, 2017). Here we address just one of those questions: how important is continental European industry for UK research activities? In our recent large-scale study of UII patterns within UK universities (Tijssen et al., 2017) we gathered quantitative data on UK science. The findings offers compelling evidence that quickly caught the attention of several news media outlets (THE, 2017; UWN, 2017) and Nature (Tijssen and Yegros, 2017). 

Data mining

Rather than embarking on the near impossible task of gauging the economic or strategic importance of those university-industry interactions, we decided to focus our attention on the geographical distribution of partner companies within and outside the UK.  And rather than try to gather administrative data such as university research income from the private sector (scarcely available for external analysis, hardly comparable between universities, and difficult to break down by geographical origin), we opted to examine universities’ research outputs. By selecting the UK’s 47 largest research-intensive universities, and collecting their publication output data for the years 2009-2015, we found  hundreds of thousands of research publications.

University-industry cooperation

We concentrated our UII analysis on successful research collaboration with industry, which is captured by the subset of University-Industry Co-authored Publications (UICPs). The author affiliate information in these publications lists names and addresses of companies, a strong indication of interactions with industry. These collaborative research outputs account for some 5% of the total publication output produced by these 47 universities.

In order to assess the relative importance of ‘corporate Europe’ within these UICPs, we split the geographical locations of the partner companies into three mutually exclusive zones: ‘local’ (within the same UK region); ‘domestic’ (located outside the region, but elsewhere within the UK); and ‘foreign’  (outside the country).  The latter geographical zone was divided into EU member states and non-EU countries. Note that many R&D-active multinational companies are located in the UK and are regarded here as either local or domestic. Else (2017) about the risks of Brexit notes that some of these multinationals are expanding their R&D activities with UK universities, but others are reconsidering their presence in the UK.

The chart displays the size of each geographical zone. It’s no surprise that UK industry carves out a significant share of the corporate research partnerships – either through local firms or those based elsewhere in the UK. However, that share is still relatively small (39%) compared to industry abroad. EU-based industry alone accounts for 24%, comparable in size to UK industry located outside a university’s own region, while the share of firms elsewhere on the globe (the USA in particular) sits at 37%. It appears that many UIIs at UK universities are international.

Figure 1. Research partner companies by geographical zone

Research partner companies by geographical zone

Our UICP volumes are also sufficiently large to shed some light on differences between individual universities.  The University of Dundee and London School of Economics and Political Science are among those with the highest level of UIIs with firms in Europe: some 40% of their UICPs list at least one firm located in a EU member state.  The UK’s largest universities show shares varying between 25% (University of Manchester) and 35% (King's College London). In terms of the sheer quantities of UICPs involving EU industry, the top of the list features the following eight research-intensive universities: Imperial College London, King's College London, University of Cambridge, University College London, University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow, University of Oxford and the University of Manchester. Every one of them had at least 400 EU-UICPs.

This ‘big picture’ suggests fairly strong collaborative relationships with corporate partners located in EU member states. However, our data on the spatial dispersion of companies contributing to UICPs is derived from a single perspective, presenting at best an interesting partial view. We needed supplementary evidence. To assemble a more robust view of UII activities in the UK science system we  collected comparative information on job mobility patterns of ‘crossover’ academics. 

Mobility of researchers

We extracted our data on the staff mobility of academic researchers from their address information in research publications. We labelled this mobile academic workforce as University-Industry Crossover Researchers (UICRs) – individuals affiliated to a UK university as well as a business enterprise during the years 2009-2015 (but not necessarily at the same time). The UICR population is bound to be a mixed bunch, ranging from freshly minted PhD graduates who just moved into industry, job hopping post-docs or career-switching senior researchers, all the way up to professors or department heads heavily involved in their university spin-off companies.

The number of UICRs we found in the research publications is relative small – slightly more than 1% of all the UK university researchers we managed to identify (which is a conservative estimate given the limitations of our data source). Nonetheless, the figures are large enough to take a closer look at UII patterns involving EU industries. Focusing on the share of UICRs that involve a EU-based company, as a fraction of all their UICRs, Imperial College London, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and the University of Cambridge are at the top of the list (see Table 1). As for total numbers of EU-UICRs within each university, each of the ‘big eight’ universities mentioned above had at least 30 of these crossover researchers among their staff.

Table 1. Involvement with companies on the European continent: UICA and UICR statistics for the eight most active UK universities

  Share of UICAs with companies in another EU country* Share of UICRs moving from/to a company in another EU country*
Imperial College London 8.5% 9.6%  
University of Oxford 7.3% 9.3%
University College London 7.3% 7.9%
University of Cambridge 6.3% 10.8%
King's College London 5.4% 4.0%
University of Manchester 5.4% 4.7%
University of Glasgow 3.9% 2.2%
University of Edinburgh 3.5% 3.7%

* Share of sum total across all selected 47 UK universities

Valuable and vulnerable

Our recent comparative study of 47 UK universities, offers compelling evidence of how significant those relationships and interactions with EU industry actually are. Obviously, our study is retrospective and cannot fully reflect UII patterns in 2017. However, given the large figures involved we believe that our empirical data provide compelling comparative information on the size of the intersection between UK academia and European industry, which is populated by hundreds of UII-active researchers straddling and moving between universities and the corporate world. The inter-relational fabric comprises many academic and business networks and thousands of personal ties, each built on mutual trust relationships, common understanding and shared goals.  This vibrant organisational space represents many decades worth of UK investments in valuable human capital and vulnerable social capital. Brexit could do serious damage if those connections are jeopardised or severed.

Looking forwards

This bibliometric study presents a new way of looking at productive university-industry interactions in the UK university system. Clearly these first findings presents a one-sided snap shot which may perhaps also introduce biases that lead to misinterpretations of university-industry R&D relationships. Nonetheless, our UICP and UICR data provides interesting university-level information, supplementary to metrics generated by other sources such as the UK Higher Education-Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey. Rossi and Rosli (2015) note that the HE-BCI indicators on UII are not focused on knowledge transfer processes and mobility. Our UICP and UICR data could contribute to broaden the set of HE-BCI indicators, thereby widening the usage of such metrics for comparisons within the UK science and innovation system.

In our follow-up study we intend to assess the extent to which UICR mobility is related to foreign companies, and if their foreign relationships represent mainly an outflow of UK university academics or an inflow of researchers who moved from foreign companies to universities within the UK. Tracking the most recent annual trends in the number of UICPs and UICRs with links to those companies might prove interesting information to gauge effects of Brexit as a ‘shock’ to the UK university system and monitor further implications of such a government-imposed intervention on the UII regimes and environments.


This research project was funded by the ESRC/HEFCE-funded Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) at the University College London, where Robert Tijssen is an international co-investigator and Alfredo Yegros a researcher. They work on the CGHE research project ‘Higher education’s engagement with industry: metrics and indicators of boundary spanning UK academics’.

Literature references

Adams, J. & Gurney, K. (2016). The implications of international research: collaboration for UK universities. London, UK: Digital Science.

Else, H. (2017), Academics warn about Brexit threat to university-business links, Times Higher Education, blog post 9 February 2017.

Policy Institute (2017). Positioning the UK within the global research landscape. London: King’s College.

Rossi, F. & Rosli, A. (2015). Indicators of university–industry knowledge transfer performance and their implications for universities: evidence from the United Kingdom. Studies in Higher Education, 40, 1970–1991.

Royal Society (2016). UK research and the European Union: the role of the EU in funding UK research. London, UK: Royal Society.

THE (2017). Times Higher Education, blog post 3 March 2017.

Tijssen, R., Lamers, W. & Yegros, A. (2017). UK universities interacting with industry: patterns of research collaboration and inter-sectoral mobility of academic researchers, University College London: CGHE Working Paper no 14.

Tijssen, R. & Yegros, A. (2017). UK universities and European industry, Nature, 6 April 2017, 544, 35.

UWN (2017). University World News, blog post 2 March 2017.

About Robert Tijssen

Professor of Science & Innovation Studies. Robert's research interests focus on the multidimensional dynamics of knowledge flows, linkages, and interactions between the public sector and the private sector, between science and innovation.

About Alfredo Yegros

Researcher and member of the CWTS project board. Alfredo's research interests include the analysis of public-private research interactions and knowledge flows, the study of science-technology linkages, and the study of methods that potentially able to capture societal impact of scientific research.

About Wout Lamers

Research assistant. Wout’s main interests lie in dynamics of knowledge production.

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