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External engagement – on whose terms?

2017-03-14

External engagement is part of the life-blood of LTH. We educate primarily for the business sector and wider society, although some of our students stay in academia. This provision of skills is, in my opinion, our most important assignment. We must therefore listen to the needs of our recipients – anything else would be wrong. This does not always mean that we should do what they say. Our job is to provide fundamental knowledge and a solid foundation for an entire future career.  Naturally, we are also to provide our students with cutting-edge expertise, and interweave education and research. In business the goals are sometimes more short term, and a balance must be established through a mutual understanding of our respective needs and assignments. Consequently, we are now taking stock of the collaboration taking place within our undergraduate programmes, and are organising advisory groups. We’re listening! However, when it comes to industry and other sectors it is not enough to simply think about the here and now – we must also consider the skills which will be needed in the future.

This is essentially true for research as well, but here the circumstances are different. Two-thirds of LTH’s activities are financed by external sources, and this greatly affects our research. I am all in favour of funding applied for in competition, but there has to be a balance. Two-thirds seems too much. Meanwhile, many grant providers require co-financing which further erodes the last third, forcing many researchers to devote a tremendous amount of time to writing applications and scraping for money. This does not feel like an efficient use of resources.

The Government has now proposed that we are to begin measuring our external engagement, and that this is to be taken into account in the allocation of resources to higher education. As external engagement is one of our tasks, this seems appropriate, but it begs the question: What is external engagement and how do we measure it? It may seem like a simple question, but as we familiarise ourselves with the subject we become aware of the issues and conflicts between different types of research: call it basic, curiosity-based, applied or innovation-driven research. Politicians are asking for more bang for their buck, but does that mean that they want more publications and citations, or more innovation and businesses? These do not necessarily take each other out, but they usually involve completely different time frames and are not given the same opportunities.

When we collaborate with industry it is important that we, just like in education, have a mutual understanding of our respective needs and assignments. Pure development projects should be conducted as contract research, and be paid in full by the client. If we are to conduct joint research projects they must be about more long-term issues. These issues can, however, be solved quickly with a bit of luck and expertise, but they could also last from here to eternity. Higher education is to ensure long-term knowledge formation in society and serve as a resource. As my colleague likes to say: nothing is as applied as a good theory.

Universities must take into account the industry’s need to protect and utilise the results, but at the same time, industry must show consideration for the universities’ need to publish and disclose results to the public. These issues can be solved if the parties are willing. Sometimes, however, grant providers, especially those funded by the Government, have to stand up for the universities’ independence. They have to to help maintain our right to publish, albeit with a certain delay in order to safeguard the results.

I support external engagement with industry and have myself been involved in it ever since my days as a doctoral student in the late 80s/early 90s. With a few exceptions, it has gone very well, which can be attributed to the mutual respect and trust between the parties. Let’s work on this and not end up in never-ending discussions on agreements and intellectual property rights. 

Viktor Öwall
Dean, LTH

PS. It is also my pleasure to announce that LTH has a new vice-dean for external engagement and innovation: Charlotta Johnsson from the Department of Automatic Control.


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Viktor Öwall
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering LTH

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