The entrepreneurial university and the postdoc problem

by Tom Simmons

With research budgets falling, tuition fees rising and Brexit-fuelled anxieties simmering, the British academic sector is living through tumultuous times. Observers might therefore be forgiven for overlooking another lurking debacle: the plight of that most overlooked cog in the academic machine, the postdoctoral researcher.

At first sight, ours perhaps appears a golden age for the postdoc. Backed by supportive grants, postdoc numbers have burgeoned over recent decades, to the point that they now constitute the largest staff grouping in many universities (including Cambridge’s, where today postdocs number around 4000). This story is a testament to their esteemed place in our most research-intensive institutions.

But look a little more closely and things get murky. Although the postdoc ostensibly remains a stepping-stone to an academic career, there has been no real growth in the number of permanent faculty members. In the UK almost nine in ten postdocs who board the academic bandwagon are destined ultimately to be barged out—a fact astonishingly few are aware of and fewer still adequately prepared for. The current academic-centric training and ethos of the postdoc surely can’t persist when so few can actually take that career path. Can it?

Many are beginning to think not. An increasingly vocal chorus of criticism from commentators across the academic spectrum is now demanding that academia face up to the problem. I profoundly agree but suggest we look toward yet another movement enveloping the academic world as an opportunity to help solve the problem. The aim of that movement is to mould academic institutions into a form styled ‘the entrepreneurial university’.

The rise of the entrepreneurial university

Over recent decades, universities across the world have begun espousing a newfound entrepreneurial and commercial zeal—the aim of which is both the generation of revenues from research-based businesses and the establishment of academic prestige. On this front, the University of Cambridge is arguably Europe’s greatest success story, and Cambridge Enterprise is at once one of the products and the instigators of that success.

The movement has since encroached into the formalities of many aspects of academic life. Many universities now enshrine their ambitions to foster innovation in their strategy documents and, reciprocally, government innovation policies invariably recognise academic institutions as key players in their entrepreneurial ecosystems. Aspiring entrepreneurial universities across the globe have developed system-wide infrastructures to deliver this dream: from entrepreneurship schools, to technology transfer offices, to business incubators and science parks.

And yet, as with postdoc prosperity turned postdoc problem, upon closer inspection things here too do not look so rosy. Despite the promise, studies of the performance of universities as generators of start-up companies suggest that the economic impact of the average aspirant entrepreneurial university is actually only small at best. And only the crème de la crème of the world’s academic institutions have been able to reap the proclaimed financial rewards of this new mission. Less than 13 percent of universities generate enough income from their work to cover their costs.

Shared opportunity

How then might the 21st century research-intensive university tackle these concurrent problems? How to create a system that doesn’t spit out postdocs unhappily from one end? And how to foster an academic system that efficiently manufactures commercial success from lab-based discoveries?

I see here not the collision of two misfortunes but rather a shared opportunity. To my mind, our abundance of technically adept postdoctoral graduates is not a problem to be solved, but an asset to be valued. It’s an asset that any entrepreneurial university worth its salt would be grateful to have, and would take greats pains to nurture.

Shared benefits

An institution that epitomised the entrepreneurial university ideal would instinctively recognise the value of the postdocs it trains to non-academic occupations. It would maintain close relationships with external companies, which are potential employers of postdocs, and would align many research programmes with them, ensuring postdocs graduate with expertise valued by industry. It would encourage entrepreneurship, but the skillset and experiences it would impart would prepare postdocs for many differing careers also.

In turn, policies that support the non-academic ambitions of postdocs will themselves support universities’ entrepreneurial ambitions. Commercially minded postdocs with their ‘ears to the ground’ about the potential of their research would enable better application of new discoveries and inventions. A new generation of commercially minded postdocs would also prove an unrivalled resource to the neighbouring community of established and start-up companies that are crucial to any entrepreneurial university. And postdoc-targeted training schemes would best enable these postdocs to live up to this entrepreneurial creed.

A way forward

I suggest that proponents of both missions join forces, to collectively frame arguments to key stakeholders, to make their missions more cost-effective and to streamline solutions to both problems. Fruitful starting points include:

  • Building postdoc-targeted training courses to equip postdocs with skills such as intellectual property, business development and marketing. Such courses could form a fundamental part of the postdoc training experience.
  • A concerted effort to encourage entrepreneurial and commercial awareness within the faculty, to better enable postdocs (and others) to explore alternate career paths, and to open staff members’ eyes to the commercial potential of their research. Such an effort could be spearheaded top-down through policy changes but should ideally be driven by entrepreneurially minded staff on the ground too.
  • Deepening of core relationships between the university and established businesses, to align university research programmes with commercial opportunities and postdoc skillsets with industrially valued ones.

Across the University of Cambridge we are already making solid progress in this direction, and numerous other universities are enacting initiatives of their own too. Together such moves will begin to do justice to the world-changing potential of both the researchers and the research leaving university laboratories.

Dr Tom Simmons is an Enterprise Fellow at the University of Cambridge, a GFC Fellow at the World Economic Forum and president of the Entrepreneurial Postdocs of Cambridge (EPOC).

version of this article originally appeared in the Postdoc Journal.


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