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Beyond academia: Breaking down the barriers that curtail industry collaborations and career moves

Colourful shape sorting toy

Credit: Eric Tormey/Alamy

David Bogle and others tell Julie Gould about porosity, the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

After more than three decades working for the same chemical company, Joan Cordiner accepted a senior role at a university. For many, she says, the move from industry to academia can feel like being a square peg in a round hole. Academic colleagues sometimes need to be persuaded that skills acquired elsewhere have value. But collaborations and career moves between the two sectors are crucial, she adds, in countries with ambitions to become (or remain) research powerhouses.

David Bogle, pro-vice provost of the Doctoral School at University College London, defines this “porosity” as the movement of people within academia and beyond it — including careers in government and the non-profit sector — and the skills and experience acquired en route.

This first episode of a six-part series about porosity also includes perspectives from Søren Bregenholt, chief executive of the Sweden-based biotech company Alligator Bioscience; UK entrepreneur and technology-transfer professional Nessa Carey; and US science journalist Chris Woolston. Woolston reports on Nature’s annual career surveys, including its most recent one on salary and job satisfaction in academia and beyond.



David Bogle and others tell Julie Gould about porosity, the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

Julie Gould: 00:10

Hello, I'm Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to this series Beyond Academia, where we explore the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

First things first, what is porosity? I first heard this term when I was talking with David Bogle, Pro-Vice Provost of the Doctoral School at University College, London, almost one year ago. It wasn't a term I'd ever heard before. So I asked him what it means.

David Bogle: 00:43

The movement of people, between academia and roles beyond academia. It doesn't only need to be industry, it can be government, it can be charitables, the third sector, small companies, policy, whatever it might be. But I'm really mostly talking about taking the skills and experience through, and having that to be porous between academic roles and roles beyond academia.

Julie Gould: 01:09

Although this may not be new information, it can still be hard to hear, for most people who enter the world of academia end up leaving. Yet even though many people make this leap, I'm sure you're aware that it isn't an easy one.

Chris Woolston is a journalist who writes regularly for Nature Careers, and is the editorial lead for its global annual surveys of working scientists. In 2021, he reported on salary and job satisfaction, and how careers in industry and academia compare. And he said that there are a lot of barriers across the membrane between the two worlds.

Chris Woolston: 01:44

It's not just a membrane. There's all kinds of systems that are in place to keep people where they're at. They feel a lot of pressure from the people around them to stay where they're at. They get encouragement from people around them to stay where they're at. They at least know it. It's a known quantity. And everything on the other side of that membrane is an unknown quantity. And even if they have friends who have been over there, and they can talk about it, they still may not be completely sure about making that transition.

Julie Gould: 02:14

But it is clear that the systems and barriers can be broken, says Søren Bregenholt, CEO of the Sweden-based biotech company Alligator Bioscience.

Søren Bregenholt: 02:23

I think the flow from from academia to industry, that happens. That's how we all ended up in in the industry. I think the other way around is probably more difficult and and need some help.

Julie Gould: 02:40

Joan Cordiner spent several decades working in industry before becoming the interim head of department at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield, in the UK, in 2020.

After finishing her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, Joan spent just over three decades working with the same company (although the company did change its name quite frequently, starting as ICI, and at the end it was Syngenta).

Joan said that one of the toughest challenges for people who want to make this move, the one where you try to get back into academia, is to persuade the academics that they really really want you on their team.

Joan Cordiner: 03:18

In a sense, she you have to be a square peg fits in a square hole. And if you're a round peg, you have to convince people that you can become square, or they need a round peg.

Julie Gould: 03:33

What she means here is that those doing the hiring for academic positions, the square holes, traditionally look for academics (or square pegs) to fill those positions.

Now, if you're someone who has spent some time away from academia, (aka a round peg), you need to show them that you can provide extra skills that make it a perfect fit, that you can be a square peg. Or, what you need to do is to show them that they need someone with industry skills, knowledge and experience (the round peg).

So, the membrane has round holes and square holes. And I imagine many other shaped holes too. But the more I talked to people about this concept of porosity, the more I realized that it's more complicated than just fitting the right people through the right holes, and back again,

UK entrepreneur and technology transfer professional Nessa Carey, whose career has straddled academia and industry, including a senior role at Pfizer. agrees,

Nessa Carey: 04:30

I think it's more sophisticated than that now, because I think what we're seeing is such a huge emphasis on collaborating between industry and academia.

And we're also seeing more use of placements. So I think what we're seeing is a lot more back and forth between the sectors. that's breaking down some of the barriers that used to exist.

So I think you can take it from a real extreme of “Are you in industry?” or “Are you in academia?” to what's actually happening at that interface between the two.

Julie Gould: 05:01

What Nessa is referring to here is collaboration between the sectors, how academics and those outside of academia are working together on projects. And importantly, with the same goals.

These collaborations aren't easy to manage, she says. Academics and those working outside have very different working cultures that quite often clash. But the most important thing is to make sure that expectations are set at the beginning of the conversations,

Nessa Carey: 05:29

It's really important that everybody is very honest at the beginning about what they want out of it. There's no good, for example, an academic saying, “Yes, yes, we want to get into this”, and “Yes, we completely understand what industry wants,” when really what they're thinking is, “This might be a slightly easier way of getting money.”

And once the project started, it can go where it likes, because of course, we're all going to follow the science. That's not what happens.

You know, I've chaired some of these sorts of collaborations, and have had to be the person saying, “You're right, that is a really interesting finding. And within this project, we're not continuing to investigate it.

“Yeah, I'm sure we can find a way of handling the intellectual property so you can go off and do that separately. But that's not what we're aiming for in this program.”

Julie Gould: 06:08

So why is porosity so important? Well, when you look a bit more closely at what is happening between the two sectors, you'll find that some really big players are interested in taking it down.

Joan Cordiner, who we heard from a little earlier, is getting involved in conversations with the powers that be over how academic science is funded and analyzed here in the UK. The people involved in this are the leaders of the funding bodies, the UK Government, and deans and presidents of UK based universities. And porosity is a big part of that conversation.

Joan Cordiner: 06:40

I think it's actually fundamental for the success for the country. How do we make sure that we really are the research powerhouse we deserve to be? Well, part of that, and it's only part of it, we always need underwriting fundamental signs. But part of that is making an impact.

Julie Gould: 07:01

Here, impact means how is the basic science that is done in academic institutions going to solve some of the challenges we face as humans, vaccines against pandemics, climate change, food scarcity? The list goes on.

Joan Cordiner: 07:14

And so in academia, the impact metrics or the KEF knowledge exchange metrics are becoming more important.

Julie Gould: 07:22

These metrics come from the knowledge exchange framework, or KEF, which has an aim to increase efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funding for knowledge exchange. To let businesses and other users outside of the academic world access this knowledge and expertise that are embedded in English universities.

Joan Cordiner: 07:41

In the REF, the impact stories are now part of the REF and getting more prominence.

Julie Gould: 07:51

The REF, or Research Excellence Framework, is a system used in the UK to assess the quality of academic research, and thus inform the selective allocation of research funding.

There are three main sections to this assessment, the quality of outputs, for example, publications, performances and exhibitions, the environment that supports the research. And finally, the impact beyond academia.

Joan Cordiner: 08:15

The way the country is moving, and the way the metrics for academics are moving, are in the right way to drive more porosity.

Julie Gould: 08:25

So as this topic is right at the forefront of people's minds, I thought it might be a good time to see if we can shine a light on it, on what some of the challenges and barriers are to porosity, and how to overcome them, but also on how the sectors are working together in different ways to further our knowledge and to take on some of those big global challenges that we face.

So when David Bogle from UCL first approached me with this concept of porosity with respect to the movement of people, I was immediately imagining this literal, slightly flexible membrane that surrounds universities with a variety of different shaped holes in it, depending on which department of the university you came from.

The bigger the hole, the more people that move from academia to the beyond, and back again. The smaller the hole, the fewer people moved, but also the harder it is to move.

And it turns out that this isn't a bad way to visualize it. So keep this image in your mind as you listen to the series, as I hope that with some of the conversations I share, I can make some of those holes bigger, and maybe explore what it would be like if there wasn't a membrane at all.

Thanks for listening.

I'm Julie Gould.


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