The Academy And Industry: Not Necessarily At Odds

While scientists may sometimes see basic and applied research as two opposing ends of the spectrum, combining the two has been beneficial, share A*STAR’s top leaders.

AsianScientist (Oct. 17, 2014) – At an annual scientific conference held by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) on September 25-26, 2014, delegates discussed the topic of finding the balance between industry-related research and academic research.

“The implication is that if you over-do one or the other, you will disturb one or the other. Working with industry distracts you from academic research, but if you are too deeply involved in academic research, you forget relevance to industry. Or can the two complement one another?” asked Mr. Philip Lim, CEO of Exploit Technologies (ETPL), the technology commercialization arm of A*STAR.

Life in the commercial lane

Sir David Lane, chief scientist of A*STAR, shared his thoughts on the basic difference between scientists from academy and industry. The former strives towards achieving publications in top peer-reviewed journals and obtaining tenure at good universities, while the latter works towards productization and profit-making, he said.

Prof. Lane commented that industry-related research was often very structured, with specific goals and continual progress reports, and tended to involve large groups of people with different areas of expertise. The advantage of working with industry was that something tangible could be brought to impact, leading to social and economic benefits.

“The structure of trying to achieve a product, an end goal, creates rigor in the science. Even though as an academic scientist you’ve got a strong academic interest, the structure can help a lot to help you do very good research. The conflict between academic research and industrial research doesn’t always have to exist,” he said.

In his experience, tension arises when research collaborations are not fair to one party or the technical plan and milestones are not realistic. According to Prof. Lane, heads of academic institutions have to allow flexibility to researchers who are participating actively in academic-industry projects, such as by not judging their performance by publication output.

Picking the right partner

Professor Kwong Dim-Lee, executive director of the Institute of Microelectronics (IME), shared about his institute’s experiences in collaborating with industry. He said that mission-oriented research institutes generate innovation and naturally attract industry collaborations. In turn, these collaborations lead to a virtuous cycle of intellectual property and tangible societal benefits.

In IME, public-private partnerships do not distract from doing good academic science, he said. Since the Silicon Photonics Research Program was initiated in 2006, IME has published 116 papers, filed 31 patents, and received eight-fold increase in funding from industry partners.

“The key is in selecting the right partner, developing the right project scope, and coming up with very long-term project plans,” Prof. Kwong said.

During the panel discussion, the audience asked whose responsibility it was to manage the balance between conducting academic research versus working closely with industry partners, and to ensure the A*STAR research institutes did not become contract research organizations that performed research for industry on a fee-for-service basis.

Prof. Lane said that it was up to the executive director of the research institutes to set the direction for the institute, and implement a robust review process to select an appropriate industry partner.

Thriving on translation

The audience asked the panel whether industry collaborations distracted scientists from their “golden mission” of helping people live better. Prof. Lane commented that for drug discovery, very few compounds have been successfully launched without the help of pharmaceutical companies.

He gave the example of the Experimental Therapeutics Center and the Drug Discovery and Development Center that A*STAR established to bridge basic science and clinical research and development. These research institutes still need to find an industry partner after Phase I/II clinical trials, because the amount of expertise and resources to further drug development was beyond the capabilities of an academic research institute.

The audience asked which was preferable: academic achievements or industry products. Prof. Lane commented that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive. He gave the example of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Singapore in 2003. A team of researchers at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) collaborated with Roche Diagnostics to co-develop a SARS detection kit. GIS sequenced the SARS genome and the kit used Roche’s polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based platform technology to rapidly and accurately detect it.

The kit was then clinically tested in collaboration with the Singapore General Hospital. Genelabs Diagnostic Pte Ltd also worked closely with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) to jointly develop two antibody-based tests for the diagnosis of SARS from just a drop of serum, plasma or blood.

As the example of the SARS diagnostic kit story showed, not only do industry collaborations directly help control a pandemic, they also result in publications in reputable journals.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Cory M. Greiner/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sarah has a PhD degree in biomedical sciences. She hops on a plane or dive boat every chance she gets, and firmly believes that “one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

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