Trans-Atlantic Approaches to Impact and Knowledge Exchange


Hamish McAlpine, left, and Sean Fielding.

All around the world, governments have been investing in research and development (R&D) – including in universities – as they believe it helps deliver economic growth, innovation, and productivity. Increasingly, they want to see a return for that investment, but there’s neither an easy nor an agreed method of doing so.

For this fifth article in the series (the first of a two-parter mainly comparing and contrasting US-UK approaches), I spoke to two leading UK experts who also know other countries; Dr Hamish McAlpine, head of knowledge exchange data and evidence at Research England, and Sean Fielding, director of innovation, impact and business at the University of Exeter, and also the chair of the UK national knowledge exchange association, PraxisAuril. The latter had recently returned from the Association of University Technology Managers general meeting of 2,000 knowledge exchange professionals in Texas, where the more holistic UK approach is apparently piquing people’s interest.

Different paths

Before diving in to look at the two countries’ approaches, it’s worth remembering some of the broader contextual differences. The US is a more massive and even more diverse system to that across the four devolved UK nations. The two countries also have different methods of evaluating and funding research. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework, or REF, has helped embed the ‘impact agenda’ among universities, whereas such conceptions of impact vary across the US. The American Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment Measuring the Effects of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science (known as STAR Metrics) initiative was stopped in 2016, becoming the less ambitious and simpler Federal Reporter. This illustrates how hard it can be to measure impact, especially across such a large, diverse and devolved system as the USA.

The two nations also have different histories when it comes to impact. In America, the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act helped define who has responsibilities for taking forward an invention and who owns the intellectual property (IP). Up to then, the US government had tried to only offer non-exclusive licenses to patents resulting from federally funded research, with few new innovations emerging. Any commercial company that took the risk of taking a new idea to market could expect to be crowded out if it was successful. Bayh-Dole changed all that, resulting in a huge rise in innovation (e.g. a tenfold increase in academic patenting in the first 20 years) as products were developed, patented and commercialised by universities and other research organisations (often in partnership with businesses), which could retain the new IP even if the underlying research was federally-funded. The UK came to broadly similar conclusions about the same time, but the responses have been different.

Special relationships

In England, flexible Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) money is provided from the government to help professionalise knowledge exchange across a wide range of university business collaboration activities, whereas in the US such work is generally self-funded through commercial income from businesses. Fielding explained that in the UK, there’s a concern that such an approach would “tend to make relationships too transactional and short-term, as long-term investment is required to build relationships”.

By contrast, alumni play a much bigger role in the US, with the UK only starting to catch up (from a long way behind). It’s a “completely different order of magnitude” says Fielding. In America, alumni connections and donations support a range of knowledge exchange activities, from sponsored chairs, to new research centres, to greater mobility of people (at all career stages) between industry and universities. In the UK, HEIF and other schemes allow some of that activity e.g. industry fellowships or secondments. Often, people in businesses need to have experience of universities to understand the benefits, with a bit of money often required to help get them started.

The metrics tail wags

I heard how impact and knowledge exchange activities in the US tend to be broken down into technology transfer, licensing, spin-outs and patents – with corresponding metrics, targets and teams working on each. The long-running annual Association of University Technology Managers survey gathers data on a narrow set of measures, driving behaviour accordingly. There has been renewed scrutiny recently of how pharmaceutical companies in particular benefit from publicly-funded US university research, raising questions about the difference between fundamental and applied research. The emerging Return on Investment (ROI) Initiative for Unleashing American Innovation, run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (which itself is an arm of the federal Department of Commerce), aims to ensure public funding better supports national security and attracts private investment.

By contrast, the UK uses a broader conception of impact and knowledge exchange, encompassing a wider range of collaborations with non-academic partners that can lead to a wider range of outcomes e.g. joint research projects, consultancy, training, or student placements. All these activities tend to be more coordinated within institutions. In the UK, impact and knowledge exchange are seen more as a two-way “exchange”, rather than a one-way linear process. The annual HE-BCI survey, which has been running for 19 years, is also seen as more comprehensive, accounting for the wider range of activities and partnership types, and aiming to allow a diverse sector to play to individual institutional strengths. The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) attempts to follow this approach, recognising different institutional missions.

So that summarises some of the key similarities and differences between the UK and the USA, the next article asks where next for policies in this area around the world.


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Louis Coiffait

Louis Coiffait is a commentator, researcher, speaker, and adviser focused on higher education policy, with a particular interest in impact and knowledge exchange

He has worked with Pearson, Taylor & Francis, SAGE Publishing, Wonkhe, think tanks, the Higher Education Academy, the National Foundation for Educational Research, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Teacher Training Agency, an MP, and a Minister.

He has led projects on how publishers can support the impact agenda, the future of higher education (the Blue Skies series at Pearson), access to elite universities, careers guidance, enterprise education, and the national STEM skills pipeline (for the National Audit Office).

He is also committed to volunteering, including over a decade as a school governor and chair of an eight-school federation in Hackney in East London, and recently as vice-chair of a school in Tower Hamlets. He spent three years as chair of Westminster Students’ Union.

He studied at York, UCLA and Cambridge. Louis is an RSA Fellow, amateur photographer, “enthusiastic” sportsman, proud East London citizen and Yorkshireman (really).

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