For many researchers, the overall goal of their work is to make an impact. Setting up a business or social enterprise, or partnering with a company to exploit research outcomes, can be a way of achieving this desired, sustainable, long-term impact.
David Coombe, Director of Research and Innovation, London School of Economics, says:
“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.”
The reason for commercialisation does not need to be about making a significant profit. Even the largest universities with international reputations for excellence will have only a small number of spin-outs that make significant profits. Most ventures make a modest financial return.
Instead, commercialisation activities can be a powerful way to enhance and sustain research impact after funding ends.
Dr Shanta Aphale-Coles, Business Engagement Manager at the University of Manchester, says:
“To say social science shouldn’t be commercialised is limiting its potential and restricting use, especially if it has been publicly funded. 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.”
Sustainability of funding and staff
Revenue from social science research can increase sustainability by funding further research. For example, commercialisation income might be used to support postdoctoral researchers and research assistants.
Where grant funds are limited, commercialising research can create alternative funding streams, which can benefit the entire social science community.
At an individual level, commercialisation of research is usually not motivated by personal gain. But it can be a way to positively distinguish yourself and your work from your peers, while also achieving widespread, sustainable, positive impact on society.
Some organisations also recognise and reward research commercialisation, and build this into performance evaluation and their academic promotion pathway.
Research Excellence Framework rating
In the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system for assessing the quality of research, commercialisation of social science research can be a major plus point in evaluating an organisation.
Impact is graded by assigning a star rating to research, on an ascending scale. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines achieve many high star REF ratings from their commercialisation activities. In principle, social science commercialisation activities should be able to do the same.
Knowledge Exchange Framework rating
The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) recognises and rewards excellence in knowledge exchange. Organisations whose researchers exploit the outputs of their research through commercialisation activities like spin-outs and licensing, among other mechanisms, can achieve higher ratings in the KEF.