Knowledge exchange

Why is Knowledge Exchange important for principal investigators?

As a principal investigator (PI), your research will generate knowledge and you may be expected to transfer your good ideas, research results and skills to other research organisations, business, the charitable and public sectors and/or the wider community. Knowledge Exchange activities can help raise your profile within your university, nationally and internationally.

Funders of research are committed to a demand-driven exchange of knowledge and expertise with business, public and charitable sector organisations and provide fundinresearch knowledge exchange g in various ways to support these aims.

What is Knowledge Exchange?

Knowledge Exchange, or Knowledge Transfer, is a key output of academic research. It conveys how knowledge and ideas move between the knowledge source and the potential users of that knowledge. It may occur through the training of postgraduate researchers who subsequently apply that knowledge in the public or private sector, or through direct engagement between the academics and public/private sector via collaborative or contract research, or through the exploitation of intellectual property through the creation of start-up companies, or in many other ways. The key common element is that information and expertise is exchanged with businesses, society and/or the economy.

The UK Research Councils have drawn up some principles to encourage good practice in Knowledge Exchange.

What opportunities are there for Knowledge Exchange?

Your research organisation is likely to have services providing help and support for knowledge exchange.  These may be provided by separate functions within the organisation, e.g. business development or technology transfer offices, but may well be part of your central research office, which may be able to help in the first instance.

Approaches to Knowledge Exchange include:

  • collaborative research:  academic research undertaken in partnership with other universities or research organisations, with business, with government and/or with the third sector (e.g. charities). Collaborative research can take a number of forms, from a basic grant between two partners, through to a complex multi-partner research programme
  • collaborative training: enabling researchers to develop the relevant skills to undertake excellent research, work effectively in business (and/or the government or other important sectors), and exploit the outcomes of their research. Training opportunities include vocational courses, collaborative studentship projects between academia and industry, and training in entrepreneurship
  • people and information exchange: increased levels of university-business interaction; exchange of researchers between academia and industry to stimulate partnerships between business and researchers; brokering and networking activities, fellowship schemes that enable researchers to work in a commercial environment; Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs)
  • commercialisation and development activities: encouraging researchers to take their ideas further down the route to exploitation, and rewarding them for high quality innovation. For example the UK Research Councils' Follow-on Fund (plus a range of other Council-specific schemes) supports ‘proof-of-concept' type work, the RCUK Business Plan Competition provides training and mentoring in the development of business skills, and Enterprise Training develops researchers' entrepreneurial skills.

What are the benefits of collaboration with researchers or users of research in other sectors?

Knowledge exchange including collaboration with organisations outside academia have a number of very significant benefits to academics. These include at least some of the following:

  • joint projects very often give access to extensive datasets/expertise/equipment that would be either impossible or very expensive to obtain for yourself
  • you have the opportunity to work with non-academic experts who have different working methods and ways of looking at research problems - this can be a very important learning experience for both sides
  • collaborations open up a range of new funding opportunities, be they direct funding from the collaborating organisation(s) or funding from a range of sources aimed at promoting knowledge exchange activities, e.g. KTPs, CASE studentships, Partnership Grants, etc.
  • funding for knowledge transfer may counts towards income targets
  • successful collaborations allow you to increase significantly the impact of your research
  • the results of Knowledge Exchange activity may form the basis of impact examples for assessment exercises such as the Impact Case Studies for the UK Research Excellence Framework
  • opportunities to create spin-out companies and develop a partnership approach to future interactions with external users
  • potential benefits to teaching activities, including the development of student projects (undergraduate or postgraduate), access to case study materials for projects and practical classes, and opportunities to visit partner organisations as part of the students, career development.

Potential barriers to collaboration with external users

It is worth being aware of the existence of a number of potential barriers to knowledge exchange and collaboration between academia and external end user organisations.  These barriers, according to Abreu et al's Universities, Business and Knowledge Exchange (2008), are:

  • lack of knowledge of potential partners, collaboration mechanisms and funding opportunities
  • differences in research culture and language
  • differences (or perceived differences) in research drivers
  • financial constraints, Intellectual Property (IP) and confidentiality issues
  • timescales, with universities often operating on significantly longer time scales than potential outside collaborators.

These are not insurmountable barriers and considering how to overcome them  will resullt in a more successful and satisfying collaboration.