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Interview—Is Tech Transfer For The Social Sciences?

Social Science

If you work in or collaborate with partners in Europe or Central America, tech transfer and SS probably isn't a new concept. But if you’re in the U.S. or other parts of the world, SS is an overlooked area of technology transfer.

Why is this? Why aren’t social science (SS) innovations more encouraged and visible in the tech transfer field? How could fields like Economics, Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology create impact and assist in solving the problems our world faces today? How can more TTOs, innovation outfits and incubators collaborate with SS researchers to commercialize their work and effect change?

To begin to answer these questions, we turned to tech transfer and SS experts, Tom Hockaday, author of University Technology Transfer: What It Is and How To Do It, and Chris Fellingham, Licensing and Ventures Manager at Oxford University Innovation.

BCC: Why is much of SS research commercialized in many countries except the U.S.?

Tom: Relationships between social scientists and tech transfer is new, triggered in large part by 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF introduced a measure of Research Impact, which was worth 20% of the overall points, which affected how much money universities received from the central government. The REF encouraged researchers to ask, “What impact is our work having?” Researchers began to consider, “How can we discuss and present the impact we’re having?”

From what I read and hear in conversations with colleagues in the U.S., they’re just as interested in impact. It’s just that researchers in SS aren’t obliged in the U.S. to think about impact to the extent that they recognize the tech transfer as a channel that can help them.25-30 years ago, some researchers thought technology transfer and commercialisation of research was the work of the devil, but many others wanted to get involved.

Nowadays, there’s more and more acceptance, comfort and experience. You can go and talk with somebody down the corridor and ask, “How was it engaging in the TTO?” But there’s not yet the familiarity in SS, how it plays out, the successes, etc.

Chris: There are complexities. There’s an interesting angle around the Benelux countries, the relationship between the economy and universities. There’s much more of a sense that university should be integrated in the local economy. Academics, business, local government—they're much more integrated, so SS comes much more naturally. That’s the attitude. National cultures. It creates a natural demand. I don't think we have that in other parts of the world.

BCC: How Can TTOs Attract SS Researchers?

Tom: For many SS researchers and TT staff this is new. The main thing is to encourage the researchers and TT staff to talk with each other. It’s for the TTO to think quite hard about, “How can we help these researchers?” TTOs exist to help researchers who want help to generate impact and transfer research results. Tech transfer needs to think, “We’re part of this university, we’re serving a part of it, but not all parts of it. How can we serve more parts?” First, the TTO needs to hire people who know what SS is. 30 years ago, tech transfer in the technical sciences was new, so what did TTOs do? They hired experts so that the TTOs could have proper conversations with the researchers. Today, the TTOs need to hire social scientists. We learned very clearly from our experiences. Hire a social scientist who has industry experience too, someone who knows what SS is, and that it’s different. The SS researchers are different than those in the tech sciences, as are their motivations and interests.

TTOs have great networks--engineering, pharma and medtech companies, patent attorneys--all of whom could help us build and commercialize tech in those areas. Let’s think about our networks with people outside the university who know about SS development, and who have built consulting businesses for example. The consulting model is great for SS researchers. They’re active consultants providing their expertise for sale. They can build a consulting business around a core team. Talk to the people who have built SS consulting businesses. Hire the staff and build the network. Where might you find these experts? In SS departments.

Chris: Speak to TTOs, in some areas more than others for commercialization. International Development is a hotspot for commercialization; there are quite a few examples of not-for-profit organizations. Oxford Policy Management, Innovations For Poverty Action (IPA) from Yale, a couple of others like that. It’s quite an active area. Any area where there’s strong external engagement--Business, Geography and Environment, commercialization is not a super hard sell.

For more insight into tech transfer in SS, check out the rest of our interview: 

Tech Transfer And The Social Sciences

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Written by Sarah Greenberg on Feb 9, 2021 10:00:00 AM

Sarah Greenberg is the Manager of Content Marketing at BCC Research. She creates our blog, social media and email content.