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Now you see it, now you don’t – why university-business collaboration in the humanities goes unnoticed?

Did you think that scholars in the humanities don’t collaborate with companies in terms of their research? Well, you thought wrong – and so did I, before talking to Heidi Kinnunen, my colleague at the University of Helsinki Research Services. Turns out that this collaboration does exist, but it is usually not named as such, and that’s why it also often goes unnoticed – and uncompensated.

The Helsinki business collaboration team – like their colleagues in universities around the world, nowadays – help researchers build successful research partnerships, mostly with companies. Their job is to support academics who wish to turn their research findings into practical applications, and commercialization is one option to make that financially possible.

The forms of university-business collaboration vary from short-term projects to large-scale strategic partnerships. In contract research, the project is driven by the specific needs of a company that is also providing full funding for it, but collaborations can also be based on shared research interests and joint funding. Sometimes it is the university’s research infrastructure that attracts companies, or the companies can provide academic research with data and materials that they might not otherwise have access to.

Academic consulting is another form of university-business collaboration.

“Academic consulting” is a curious term. Google it, and you get search results promising success in college admissions, academic achievement, and postgraduate careers, offered either by external consulting services or by universities to their existing students.

But scroll down a bit more, and the term gains another meaning – that of researchers offering their expertise to advice clients in private, public, and third sectors on a project basis.

Academic consulting may be an independent career choice, but in terms of university-business collaboration it is professional advisory offered by full-time academics to organizations outside their academic institution on the basis of their scholarly expertise.

The interesting thing is, too, that while in general academic consulting is the lesser-known form of academia-business collaboration, it may well be a prevailing form in the humanities and social sciences, where the distinction between bespoke research and academic expertise is not always easy to make.

Recognizing all of this, Heidi Kinnunen together with colleagues from the University of Helsinki and Åbo Akademi in Finland interviewed 39 researchers in the humanities, social sciences, educational sciences, and theology to find out about their views and motivations to advance the societal impact of their research through consulting arrangements. The results of the project were published in an article that came out in the International Journal of Innovation Science in 2018.

The authors distinguish research-driven and commercialization-driven consulting from what they call “opportunity-driven consulting”. The first two are directly linked to the academic’s current research projects and discoveries. The third one, however, trades more in the academic’s overall expertise and accumulated knowledge. It is also the more common form of consulting in humanities and social sciences.

The conducted interviews clearly showed that academics in the social sciences and humanities engage in external collaboration more than we may think. True, the researchers were hand-picked to be interviewed precisely because of their networks and collaborative activities, so they are not a representative sample. Still, all the interviewees in the project had extensive networks outside academia. All of them had received requests for their expertise by companies and public sector organizations. And all were also willing to share their knowledge with external organizations, both commercial and not-for-profit, although they varied in their motivations.

So why don’t we know more of this collaboration? Here are some thoughts based on the above article and my discussion with Heidi.

First is the content of the collaboration. It is rarely about flashy discoveries, but usually about knowledge and research insights to support long-term corporate strategy and decision-making.

Second, it is a question of form. Unlike contract research or jointly funded collaborative projects, this kind of consulting often takes place informally and does not get reported as university-business collaboration.

Third, comes compensation. While no one would think to ask to get results from research in a laboratory for free, they do so for humanities and social sciences. This happens when companies ask researchers to present their findings under the pretext of exploring future collaboration over lunch, or when they invite academics to give talks at board meetings or company events with the implication that it is the academics’ public duty. Here the problem lays also with the researchers who don’t necessarily know what they can – or that they can! – charge for their services. While not all collaboration should be transactional, if the knowledge gained from academic consultation produces profits for the company, its sources should be compensated accordingly – otherwise the collaboration might be construed as sponsorship from the university to the company.

The so-called crisis of humanities centers a lot on the conception of their “uselessness”. Leaving aside the fact that not all academic research in any field need to be useful for anything other than advancement of knowledge itself, the results from this particular study on academic consulting in Finland, by Heidi and her colleagues, add to the growing body of literature highlighting the institutional barriers that hinder the practical use of humanities research.

If a university gains revenue from academic consulting, it is not always the case that it also has in place a clear HR and financial policy that allocates a fair portion of the income to the researcher or research team. The extra income from consulting is a clear motivating factor to engage in consulting work – not necessarily in terms of personal gain but as an additional resource for team building, travel, and other research-related activities. The authors of the study also point out that it is the humanities and social sciences that are more likely to suffer from the lack of such a policy, since in STEM fields generating income from academic consulting – in the form of, say, laboratory analyses – is already an established practice.

Also, a policy should be accompanied by adequate support services. Some, more experienced academics are happy carrying out their consulting independently and know how to navigate in the corporate world. As this experience is less common in the humanities, there is also more need in these fields for support in pricing, contract negotiations, and IP issues. But my question is, how many universities actually have services with specific understanding of these issues in the humanities, where commercially viable knowledge does not often come in the form of patents or licences?

Finally, there is the all-important issue of ethics. Researchers worry that consulting might compromise their independence or academic credibility. In some cases, there is an obvious need to avoid liabilities and maintain distance between academic research and commercial activity. Sometimes, however, the worry might stem from lack of certainty about where the boundaries lie. To tackle these worries, universities should not only have clear ethical guidelines but also encourage transparency and, most of all, open dialogue about the risks that may be involved in consulting arrangements and how to avoid them. This means that they should openly applaud the critical insights that humanities especially have to offer – on ethical conduct of research, yes, but also on the pitfalls of excessive political imperatives for impact and innovation.

Original photo by Marcus Lange from Pexels