Moving from friction to cooperation, how better industry-university linkage can benefit academia

India can make the industry-academia relationship a focal point of developing our research acumen. We need to devote our energies towards converting conflict of interest to a confluence of interest as an ultimate solution

Published: Sep 16, 2021 12:27:23 PM IST
Updated: Sep 16, 2021 01:07:57 PM IST

The most significant concern is the conflict between a university's need to protect the right to publish against the industry's need to protect patents and proprietary information
Image: Shutterstock

For many, it would be surprising to know that in the SCImago Country Rankings for scientific production, India ranks seventh globally with 2.1 million published documents and 22.2 million citations in 1996-20001.  India also has the highest number of universities globally (4381 universities), ranks second globally in startups (10,757) and hosts more than 63 million Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises. Yet, paradoxically, the country lags in University-Industry research collaboration. In the Global Innovation Index 2020 ranking for University/Industry Research Collaboration, India is placed 45th, at the same score as Pakistan, at 46th. Figure 1 shows the Indian ranking compared to China and Pakistan between the years 2014-2020.

Figure 1: Global Ranking in University/Industry Research Collaboration 2014-20

Why the Paradox?

Fowler (1984), in his seminal work, has identified 15 impediments to university-industry relationships. The most significant concern is the conflict between a university's need to protect the right to publish against the industry's need to protect patents and proprietary information. The other significant cross purpose is that academics tend to concentrate on fundamental research that establishes new concepts. At the same time, the industry focuses on process improvement through applied research for short-term profits. To my mind, these are two wholly resolvable frictions behind the paradox.

   Figure 2: The Industry-Academia Tension

The industry-academia friction is tabulated in the matrix in Figure 2. The two stakeholders being at opposite ends, each needs to shift positions along the arrows shown for enhanced collaboration. It is possible to obtain a higher appreciation of viewpoints by an industry exposure to academia and broader industry representation in universities.    

Understanding the Paradox

Dr MM Pallam Raju, HRD Minister, Union of India (2013), once stated, "there is a need to transform our institutions from centres of knowledge dissemination to hubs of knowledge creation". The university-industry linkages are the critical elements for a vital knowledge-based research and innovation environment in the country. However, India consistently fails to leverage its strong higher education base to develop a robust environment for collaborative research.

To obtain clarity about the flagging industry-academia relationship, the author directed a questionnaire to 39 faculty attending the Faculty Development Program (FDP) sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in June 2021 to ask, 'who could be the driving force behind industry-academia collaboration? The overall results were gratifying as Figure 3 shows that most academia considers themselves and startups to be the potential drivers, with expectations from the government being minimal!

Figure 3: Driving Forces Behind Industry-Academia Collaboration

The author further queried 71 faculty from two batches of DST sponsored FDP; how can industry-academia relations be improved in the country? The academia preferred that universities enable them to have a sabbatical immersion in the industry to allow a very relevant exposure to industry practices. It is pertinent to note that grants of patent/IP rights are not significant attractions. There are claims that policies like the famous USA 'Bayh Dole Act1' if implemented, could revolutionise faculty participation in applied research. However, the survey responses indicate that such incentives may not be that strong for the Indian academia in the current scenario. Figure 4 provides a detailed view of the survey responses.

Figure 4: Improving the Industry-Academia Relations

Making Academic Research More Relevant to the Industry

Academia plays a crucial role in achieving economic growth in today's knowledge-based societies. However, attempts of 'commercialising knowledge' have customarily faced choppy waters.  The author feels the industry-academia friction is more due to misaligned expectations than principled opposition. There are sufficient examples wherein, given a strong incentive and exclusive attention to resolve specific problems through communication and frequent meetings, both groups have realigned expectations and achieved win-win solutions. A glowing example in India has been the association between the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and local manufacturers who worked together to design oxygen concentrators urgently required during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The author again reached out to the 71 faculty from two batches of DST sponsored FDP and queried; how to make academic research more relevant to the industry? In their response, the majority favoured knowledge sessions and interactions with businesses for expectation alignment. The respondents preferred the outside-in approach of sourcing research ideas from the industry over the current inside-out approach of academia-sourced ideas. The faculty also recommended initiatives similar to those of premier institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology, now establishing world-class research parks — some of which are supported and funded by industry partners. Figure 5 shows the responses from faculty.

Figure 5: Making Academic Research more relevant to Industry

The Future Course of Action

Literature abounds with recommendations, yet India falters in furthering industry-academia collaboration. The survey results are refreshing because faculty are not inclined to place the monkey on the government's shoulders. Building relationships among faculty and startups may solve the problem since the country has a robust infrastructure for both.

In the digital age of today, bright PhD scholars and young faculty work on cutting edge solutions that may resolve critical issues of product development faced by startups. Since fundamental research is only a small part of product development, such faculty/ research students will have to be hands-on with the startups to achieve closure. This shared finding of feasible solutions within the constraints the industry faces can become the true game-changer.  Accelerators based out of famed Universities and Institutes can enable the confluence of 'talents and needs', only, they need to be many more such establishments!

A higher pool of industry experienced practitioner faculty, like so prevalent in Germany, is the order of the day. At the other end of the spectrum, the training of experienced industry practitioners at business schools to undertake applied research is gaining momentum. They will form a unique set of resources that can bring out the best of both worlds. A better industry-academia relationship can have immense benefits, some of them being:

  • Skill development, upskilling to futuristic jobs, new talent.
  • Internships.
  • Research projects and patents.
  • Technology incubators. (commercialisation of ideas).
  • Enabling of "Chair/Professorships" at prestigious institutions by the industry.


India can make the industry-academia relationship a focal point of developing our research acumen. We need to devote our energies towards converting conflict of interest to a confluence of interest as an ultimate solution.

The new generation of research scholars and faculty are confident and far less dependent on government support.  They and our energetic and passionate startups are the critical elements for making India a global innovation hub, which it richly deserves. It is time for young academia to be the new ingredients in the startup cauldron that develops a recipe to nurtures India's growth.

Col Rajiv Bhargava is an Associate Director at the Munjal Institute for Global Manufacturing at the Indian School of Business. He is a keen observer of the dynamic interrelationships that shape the research ecosystem of the country

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from ISBInsight, the research publication of the Indian School of Business, India]

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