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South Africa's best university-industry research networks support industry while maintaining their academic integrity. Other countries can learn from their experience, says Glenda Kruss.

In South African universities, as in other academic institutes, many researchers see partnerships with industry as inimical to their traditional role of generating new, widely available, knowledge.

But government policy here is to fund university-industry partnerships as a way of innovating, enhancing global competitiveness and improving South Africans' quality of life. And across the continent, international agencies are busy promoting university-industry links to enhance development.

Establishing effective cross-sector networks rather than limited contracts and consultancies can reconcile these two positions. Africa needs partnerships that both harness the innovation potential of university research and meet industrial needs for development. South Africa's best examples can lead the way.

Avoiding detrimental partnerships

It is not enough for a country to simply increase the total number of consultancies and contracts between academia and industry. These are often short-sighted, focusing narrowly on specific interests. By their nature, they preclude serendipitous discovery.

For example, in South Africa, consultancies seldom generate publications or post-graduate work. They can supplement individual academic salaries and help retain staff, but many are not officially reported, and may happen at the expense of teaching and research.

Similarly, academics often undertake contracts more to raise funds than to follow their research interests. And industry's need for confidentiality over proprietary knowledge restricts academic publications and constrains the circulation of student theses.

In the long term, if contracts and consultancies are allowed to flourish unchecked, they may detrimentally affect a country's knowledge system.

Creating beneficial partnerships instead

Instead, more mutually beneficial network partnerships are needed across academia, industry and government.

To create such partnerships, institutions first need to understand the competitive dynamics of their target industry, and what individual firms in their region could use. And they need to be realistic to avoid ambitious science parks or design centres failing.

Universities must build their general research capacity, and specific expertise in niche areas (most of South Africa's best networks are in just a few well-established universities that have well-organised research systems). Then, they need to develop research policies and mechanisms to specifically support partnerships. They must decide which partnerships will best promote their academic mission and serve their financial imperatives, as well as contributing to national development goals.

Lessons from South Africa

Two examples from South Africa show that such strategic partnerships can indeed balance academic and industrial interests while contributing to national development.

The Tree Protection Co-operative Programme is a biotechnology research network of large paper firms and small timber producers, working on tree pathogens with academic partners at the University of Pretoria, to the benefit of all.

The university research unit is building an international scientific reputation by producing a large number of postgraduate students and accredited publications. It has become a sponsored 'centre of excellence' that attracts considerable government research funding.

The industry partners depend for their competitive edge on the costly research and development and the risk-management strategies the network provides. For example, the university researchers provide DNA technology to produce trees resistant to pests and pathogens.

A second example of a successful strategic partnership is the remote sensing Multi-Sensor Microsatellite Imager project. In this government-funded research network, university, industry and government partners work together to design micro-satellites that can supply affordable high-resolution imagery to African governments. The images can help monitor, regulate and manage resources, for example, water distribution, crop management and settlement infrastructure.

A Stellenbosch University laboratory conducts fundamental research for the network. A spin-off company manages the technology development, while application research managed by a government science council informs the design. Finally, a Belgian university and industrial partner develop specific technical components.

Mutually beneficial network partnerships like these — where university, industry and intermediary partners work towards a shared objective — generate knowledge and technological innovation for all.

They help universities harness the innovation potential of their researchers while still maintaining academic integrity. They meet industrial needs for technological progress, and also contribute to national development.

In summary, South Africa's best university-industry partnerships provide a simple lesson to other countries: strategically planning the form and scale of links that are to be promoted can strengthen development and help improve quality of life.

Glenda Kruss is a South African researcher based at the Human Sciences Research Council.