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The opportunities for universities beyond STEM

The Industrial Strategy: the opportunities for universities beyond STEM

Posted by Ed Brown | February 16, 2017 | Facilities

If we look at the Industrial Strategy through the lens of ‘STEM research’ universities will have a narrow view of the role they can play. Yes, there is a welcome emphasis on R&D funding to kick into life areas of high potential in science, technology and manufacturing but university leaders should be reading between the lines to realise the wider potential of the added value universities bring to meeting the Strategy’s challenges.

A recent Times Higher article said “some researchers may feel left out, as there is no mention of the humanities or social sciences.” Whilst the Strategy points out that “the UK has “so often pioneered discovery but not realised the commercial benefits”, universities will do well to remember that both Nurse and Stern recommended an interdisciplinary approach to research. The complex “path from scientific discovery to the marketplace…often needs to draw on research from a range of disciplines” (Nurse Review).

The Strategy makes no direct reference to business and management research here, but there is a huge opportunity for universities to realise the commercial benefits across the long list of areas where the Strategy suggests R&D funding should be spent - clean energy and storage; robotics and artificial intelligence; satellite and space technologies; healthcare and medicine; manufacturing processes and “materials of the future”; bioscience and biotechnology; quantum technologies; and digital technology such as supercomputing and 5G mobile networks. That opportunity can be realised through an interdisciplinary approach which incorporates these predominantly STEM fields with business and management research and practice. Business and management research capability is well placed to enable the translation of discovery and invention into innovation and commerciality.

For example, for some of the major challenges we face - from obesity to the need to move to a low carbon future - we have a better understanding of the technological opportunities than the economic, social and business factors that determine the pace of innovation. How to apply marketing techniques to improve user-adoption in the area of diet and nutrition, for example, or the market pricing dynamics of alternative fuel technologies - these are bottlenecks for unlocking technological opportunities which require collaboration and investment alongside STEM funding.

The challenge, and indeed the opportunity, doesn’t end there. If the UK is to maximise the impact of our R&D, then many UK firms need to address their management capabilities - a weakness compared to other countries. UK firms suffer from investing less in management than US and European counterparts. This undermines the UK’s productivity, innovation, and therefore export competitiveness.

Leadership, productivity, innovation, supply chains, entrepreneurship and scale-ups, and international trade – all key features of the Strategy, are all areas of research and teaching carried out by business schools and which cut across all areas of industry and the economy. Again, the Strategy is not explicit in saying that universities have a role to play here but they should be using their research capabilities, business support and consultancy, and executive leadership training to shape how businesses, and economic regions, respond to the challenges the government has set out.

As the UK becomes ever more a nation of entrepreneurs, the Industrial Strategy highlights the pressing need to support our start-ups to scale up. The Strategy announced an Entrepreneurship Review (pages 66-67) which will look at, among other things, how to ensure the excellent work of business schools in supporting start-ups and micro businesses reaches a wider audience. Universities and their business schools, including those who hold the Small Business Charter award, have fantastic examples of supporting students to set up businesses. Some universities are offering entrepreneurship modules across non-business programmes. Business schools work with small businesses to help develop their management capacity, growth strategies, and business planning.  Those universities and business schools anchored in their local economies often do it best, and should be models for other institutions.

This is a multi-faceted Strategy which requires a collaborative response, not least by universities and business schools.

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