Water and fire

Can universities and companies collaborate?

11 min
Text Katrien Verreyken
Image Sebastian Steveniers


  • A university has a duty to help industry and society with good, sustainable innovations. 

  • A university can guard its academic freedom by, for example, avoiding exclusive contracts with companies. 

  • The research agenda should not be set solely by big multinationals with lots of money pushing small players out of the market. 

  • A collaboration with industry should be recognised as much as an A1 publication, teaching or provision of services. 

  • With comprehensible science communication, we define societal debates and industry finds us for innovation. 

When we think of a university, we think first and foremost of a place where students are formed into critical citizens and where research is conducted independently. But at the same time, a university shouldn’t be an island either. So how can a university best relate to the corporate world without losing sight of its core values? Maarten Weyn, professor of the Internet of Things, and Pascal Gielen, professor of cultural sociology, weigh up the pros and cons. 



Mandatory collaboration 

We’ll dive right in: can a university make money by partnering with companies? ‘I personally have nothing against that’, Professor Pascal Gielen says. ‘But I would ban it if it were purely for commercial purposes.’ 


I think it is our duty to work with companies’, Professor Maarten Weyn answers. ‘Especially if we can make a difference with our research, if we can help the industry go down the “right” path. Our scientific integrity and the values the university promotes are key to achieve this. As a university, we owe it to society and industry to provide good, sustainable innovations. In fact, I think every academic should work on at least one project with industry in their career, to counter that ivory tower mentality. But as a researcher, you do always have to think carefully about whether you can maintain integrity in a collaboration with a company.’ 

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It is our duty to work with companies if we can help them go down the “right” path.

Maarten Weyn

Academic freedom 

‘We still need to remain vigilant to a number of dangers and risks’, Gielen says. ‘One of them is guarding our academic freedom. Increasingly, I notice that clients working with a university like to write the narrative themselves or threaten to manipulate conclusions a bit for their own gain. Sometimes, they also prefer to hold back newly acquired knowledge for a while to be able to exploit it at the right time. This is certainly not an option when it comes to life-saving solutions. A university should not allow such things.’ 


‘I think we also guard that academic freedom by not going for exclusive contracts with a single company’, Weyn believes. ‘For example, I have worked with Proximus, Telenet as well as Orange. I also guard that in my contracts, that I retain the freedom to work with competing firms. I think it is important to be very transparent. For example, you can find all my affiliations on LinkedIn. I even work with competing companies to my own spin-offs. We also have a duty to communicate our research findings to the whole industry, so that all companies can get off to the same start.’ 


Money & Brain Drain 

‘But then you arrive at the next pitfall: the “return on investment”’, Gielen says. ‘An example: Facebook was developed at a university, but it was “cashed” outside the university. As a university, when you partner with a company, the first thing you have to do is make good agreements about money, but also about brains. There’s the risk of “brain drain”: the university invests in people and knowledge that are then capitalised by private companies or by a professor who has their foot in both camps.’ 


‘I don’t see an immediate problem there’, Weyn thinks. ‘Three quarters of our PhD students and postdocs end up in industry anyway. We better prepare them thoroughly for that.’ 


‘But you can never build a sustainable “middle level” this way, because hardly any valuable research experience is kept’, Gielen believes. ‘I think there should also be a policy for people who want to and can stay, so experienced research teams can be created.’ 


‘But just charge that to the industry as well’, Weyn suggests. ‘Companies engage with universities because the knowledge they gain from them is “state of the art” and unique. There should be a fair price setting in return. For the price that I, for example, ask when collaborating with a company, I can employ a researcher for part of it.’

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We need to be careful that our research agenda is not determined purely by the financially secure players who make up the hegemony in a society.

Pascal Gielen

Follow the money 

‘Another danger is the Matthew effect. You work more readily with companies that already have capital and therefore can pay for research’, Gielen says. ‘For example, I am more inclined to doing research for a museum but not so much for less wealthy artists who might be able to use it better. We need to be careful that our research agenda is not determined solely by financially secure players who make up the hegemony in a society. Look at the rise of Digital Humanities or the invasion of Google within universities. The university research agenda can thus easily become capital-driven.’  


‘A lot of research is led by hypes’, Weyn argues. ‘And these are not always relevant... What I regret, for example, is that the concept of the SME portfolio has crumbled. Previously, small businesses could get a €13,000 study done for €3,000. We could definitely make a difference for them, by doing an initial study for them, for example. Now all that has become much more expensive and we have largely lost the small businesses as customers or partners.’ 


‘There should be a well-considered policy on this’, Gielen believes. ‘We could deduct 10% of the budget that big clients bring in to do research for players with less capital. That should be made a rule. Because otherwise, we unintentionally encourage that Matthew effect: large multinationals can now easily invest in research and innovation with which they push smaller players out of the market.’ 


Fundamental research 

If we want to fully embrace collaborations with industry, will there still be enough room for fundamental and high-risk research? ‘Fortunately, there are the BOF and FWO projects for that’, Gielen argues. ‘Fundamental research definitely remains necessary’, Weyn agrees, ‘but I did learn with my spin-offs that technological innovation is pretty useless if you can’t translate it into a working business model for industry. Developing something for the sake of developing – that no longer works. It should become an automatic reflex to see how you can translate that for the benefit of industry or society, especially in the exact sciences.’ 


‘Unfortunately, in the current academic system, there’s the problem that collaboration with industrial partners is still recognised too little’, Gielen knows. ‘Particularly a tenure track position (where researchers grow towards a professorship in a number of steps, editor’s note) – you won’t achieve that with external assignments. A1 publications, teaching, scientific research grants, etc. are especially important for such positions.’ 


‘At our Faculty of Applied Engineering, collaboration with industry is considered a criterion of excellence’, Weyn says. ‘Hereby a sincere request to the other faculties to do the same.’

Ethical issues 

Are all companies good partners to collaborate with? And how do you determine whether a company is ethically aligned with the university’s values? ‘To gauge that, a university should develop a deontological code. Currently this still depends too much on a professor’s personal morality’, Gielen says. ‘Our integrity is very important’, Weyn affirms. ‘This is partly why the Dual Use Committee was established. This ethical committee evaluates whether project proposals have any potential dangers of “dual use”, military use or misuse. It also assesses applications that could be problematic in terms of human rights.’ 


‘We should also create “blacklists” of companies with which deontological cooperation is not possible’, Gielen adds.  


But Professor Weyn does not believe that cooperation with companies with questionable human rights or environmental records is necessarily out of the question: ‘One of my spin-offs is in petrochemicals where the aim is to optimise certain processes so that the environment benefits. For me, that’s a worthy project. In fact, I think it is the university’s duty to guide companies in this.’ 


‘A clear ethical framework is again crucial here’, Gielen stipulates. ‘We need to be able to justify why we engage with certain companies and where the boundaries lie. When it comes to the arms industry or polluting industries, you are treading on thin ice anyway. You cannot let potential collaborations here depend on the judgement of one professor.’ 


Good science communication 

‘Above all, we must commit to making academic research and difficult topics open, transparent and understandable’, Weyn says. ‘Through good science communication, we point more companies to our university and encourage them to innovate.’ 


‘Why don’t we make that vulgarising work, the popular science translation of research, our core business?’ Gielen wonders. ‘It is important that research results and ideas circulate in society. An important role of human sciences is the ethical discussion of this, adding nuance to the debate and providing pointed criticism. That should be recognised more. This way, we also do not have to merely carry out a research assignment from a company, but we can critically and openly debate the research frameworks together with clients and jointly formulate socially relevant research questions.’ 

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