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The evolving relationship between business and science

Perception and scepticism do not bode well for the business and science interface

The interaction between business and science is not always smooth. The difference in culture between the two fields often means that there is a lot of misunderstanding or a difference in expectations on either side. Increasingly, businesses rely on research to develop new solutions. However, there is a disconnect between the pace of industry and that of research and innovation. In this article, EuroScientist explores how the interface between science and business has evolved in recent years.

Openness and dialogue

“In industry we need to hear from science now more than ever,” says John O’Brien, deputy head of the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, “but we’re living in an era where there’s lots of scepticism of science that we need to take into account.” O’Brien is organising the ESOF2016 session on the challenges facing today’s food production industry, entitled ‘Future food: analysing the risks.’

O’Brien believes that “scientists and businesses have a responsibility to work together to understand and inform the public.” He explains that “in food safety a lot of our decisions are actually driven by perception. Everyone knows that there are real risks to consider, but we also need to deal with perceived risks.”

Science and business can work well together, according to Ros Le Feuvre, SYNBIOCHEM director of operations at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, UK. “I think the academic community is becoming more aware of the commercial potential of their science and how to exploit it,” says Le Feuvre, “there is a more open culture and increased dialogue.” She is organising the ESOF2016 session entitled ‘Synthetic biology, the pathway to commercialisation‘ focusing on challenges emerging technologies face in the marketplace.

It appears that in her field there has been an increasing level of connections with industry. “Over the past decade we‘ve developed closer relationships with industrial partners, from large multi-nationals to smaller start-ups,” Le Feuvre notes. She believes this enables them to better understand “the different priorities and time scales important to both.”

Understanding time scales

However, collaboration is not always straightforward. “For areas where technology is rapidly evolving there sometimes needs to be additional support to bridge the academic/industry divide,” she adds. Le Feuvre says this is vital “to facilitate development of high-risk but high-potential research.”

To bridge the culture gap, Aidan Gilligan, CEO of policy and communication consultancy SciCom, believes organisations on either side have a role to play. “Business moves fast and innovation is incremental,” Gilligan points out, “Researchers and funders need to understand this when they make decisions on where to invest.” He says that “the business perspective is often given by people who haven’t been in business – it’s too theoretical.”

He would like to see research move a bit closer to business. “Science sometimes just pays lip service to business. Companies far outspend the EC on R&D and have distribution networks that dwarf what researchers can access, but we don’t hear from them enough,” says Gilligan. He is organising the ESOF2016 session entitled ‘The right to be forgotten versus the right to know‘ to discuss the European Court of Justice’s 2014 ruling enabling individuals to request removal of links from search engines.

Towards two-way innovation

Increasingly, the dialogue between science and business is becoming a two-way source of innovation. “In healthcare, there is a new tension on the innovation horizon where regulators are considering the need to validate predictive algorithms and software used to target clinical services,” points out Iain Buchan, Professor of Public Health Informatics at the University of Manchester and Director at the Farr Institute for Health Informatics, UK. He will speak at the ESOF2016 session ‘Trust me, I am data,’ which will discuss relationships between the public, industry and researchers in innovative uses of data.

This will demand faster deployment, according to Buchan. “The traditional approach to ‘translation’ of research and innovation is a long road to one-size-fits-all policies.” Instead, Buchan says, “translation of research needs to be a two-way street of ‘always on analytics’ – feeding research into practice and practice into research.”

He adds: “there is a need for agile, multi-sector partnerships to research, test and deploy analytics in a ‘perpetual beta [testing]’ model and have an honest conversation with the public over doing the best with their data to meet such needs.” This approach is being tested in the Health North Connected Health Cities pilots for example.

Although it can be challenging for business people and scientists to appreciate each other’s priorities, realising the benefits of closer collaboration to get innovation to market can bring both parties closer. Further debate on this topic will take place during ESOF2016 sessions, focusing on how operating time scales, public perceptions and increased dialogue on both science and industry sides, might be to everyone’s advantage.

Featured image credit: Sisacorn via Shutterstock

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