"When considering opposition to commercialisation it’s often the case that there’s group-thinking on the stance social scientists take – 'it’s what the majority think, so we all think it'," says David Coombe, Director of Research and Innovation, London School of Economics.
For many researchers, the overarching goal of their work is to make an impact. Setting up a business/social enterprise, or partnering with a company to exploit research outcomes may be a way of achieving sustainable, longer term impact. It doesn’t need to be about making a significant profit. Even in the largest universities with international reputations for excellence, only a small minority of spinout companies, licensing deals and consultancy services make significant profits – most ventures make a modest financial return. Instead, commercialisation activities are typically driven by their ability to enable and sustain research impacts after funding ends.
"To say social science shouldn't be commercialised is limiting its potential and restricting use, especially if it has been publicly funded," says Dr Shanta Aphale-Coles, Business Engagement Manager at the University of Manchester. "That being said, there needs to be a desire to commercialise from those supporting social science research, institutional support, and relevant industry partners that are interested in the project."
Commercialising research is a powerful way to enhance and sustain research impact. Beyond this, there are other excellent reasons to commercialise your work:
- Sustainability of funding and staff: Revenue from social science research has the potential to increase sustainability by funding further research. For example, commercialisation income might be used to support post-doctoral researchers and research assistants. Where grant funds are limited, commercialising research can create alternative funding streams which can benefit the entire social science community.
- Personal recognition: At an individual level, commercialisation of research is usually not motivated by personal gain, but by the academic’s desire for a widespread, sustainable, positive impact on society. However, commercialisation can be a way to positively distinguish yourself and your work from your peers. Indeed, there are some institutions that recognise and reward research commercialisation, and build this into performance evaluation and their academic promotion pathway.
- Research Excellence Framework (REF) evaluation: Commercialisation of social science research can be a major plus point in the evaluation of a university’s research impact. In the Research Excellence Framework (REF), impact is graded using criteria which involves assigning a star rating to research on an ascending scale. The impacts that commercialisation can enable often make excellent case studies. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines achieve many high star REF Impact Cases from their commercialisation activities. In principle, social science commercialisation activities should be able to do the same.
- Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF): The KEF framework will shortly be in place to recognise excellence in knowledge exchange. This will help support research organisations to continue to encourage academics of all disciplines to exploit the outputs of their research through approaches like spin-outs and licensing among many other mechanisms.