Turning entrepreneurial doesn’t stunt academic research output

16 Aug 2012 | Viewpoint
New evidence from Italy shows that - contrary to the accepted view - academics who become entrepreneurs don’t publish less. This is an important message for universities which fear encouraging start-ups will harm their research, says Michael Kenward

Entrepreneurship and scientific research are not in conflict after all, according to a study of university spin-outs in Italy, which found researcher-entrepreneurs are more productive than peers that are wedded to academe. The findings have implications for university administrators who fear the quality of an institution’s basic research will suffer if scientists get caught up in commercialisation.

This fear is based on the “publish or perish” mantra that holds in much of the academic world. You live or die, career-wise, on the number of papers you publish, and their impact, that is, how much attention other researchers pay to your contributions to ‘the literature’.

Companies on the other hand want to keep their work secret and fear that publishing research results can damage their competitive advantage.

This difference between the two worlds might suggest that when academics set up companies to commercialise research they too might buy into the “publish and perish” philosophy, keeping their latest research under wraps while they concentrate on building their business.

But new research from the Università degli Studi di Roma ‘Tor Vergata’ and the Università degli Studi di Napoli ‘Parthenope’ shows that far from stunting an academic’s output, it can increase their publishing activities.

Publishing output

Giovanni Abramo and his colleagues studied spin-offs from Italian universities, comparing the publishing output of academics who created businesses with that of their peers who remained exclusively devoted to academe. The main message from the study is that, “the creation of a spin-off does not seem, on average, to have negative effects on the scientific performance of the founders”. The research is published as ‘An individual-level assessment of the relationship between spin-off activities and research performance in universities, R&D Management vol. 42, p 225’.

After talking to technology licensing offices in 67 Italian universities, the researchers identified 284 spin-offs from 47 universities throughout Italy. This led them to 427 scientists, which they reduced to 382 “research personnel who held formal faculty roles for at least three years over the period 2001–2008”. The next step was a bibliometric analysis – looking at the publications of these entrepreneurs and comparing it with similar academics with no start-up connections.

The project set out to consider the question “Do faculty members who found spin-off ventures have higher research performance than their colleagues (that is, publish more and higher impact papers)?” Answering this involved some complicated statistical analysis to rule out variations between, for example, an academic’s rank and different fields of science and engineering, the ‘scientific disciplinary sector’ (SDS).

This number crunching revealed that “in all disciplinary areas, researcher-entrepreneurs demonstrate better performance than their remaining national colleagues in the same field”.

Data Quality

Could it be, though, that entrepreneurial scientists always excelled and that their output has fallen from an even higher level before the spin-out? It proved harder to answer this question, thanks partly to the quality of the data. But, on the whole, the researchers reckon that “after development of a spin-off company, the number of academic founders who worsen their performance is about the same as those who improve it, with negligible differences among disciplines”.

The researchers conclude that “entrepreneurship and scientific research by academic scholars are not in conflict”. The paper’s authors believe that their findings carry an important message for university administrators and policy makers, who fear that encouraging and backing academic start-ups will harm their research.

They warn that universities can erect obstacles to university entrepreneurship because some administrators, “supported by studies that indicate a negative impact of the entrepreneurial activity on research”, believe that entrepreneurship and research activities are incompatible.

At the policy level, funding agencies can also penalise entrepreneurial thinking. As the authors put it “the share of public funds allocated to Italian universities on the basis of merit is still determined according to the teaching and the research performances”. No credit there, then, for a researcher who launches a spin-out, even though many governments see start-ups as important for economic growth.

Exploiting public research

The researchers warn about generalising these findings to other countries. For example, Italy differs from other industrialised countries in that government spending on research equals that of the private sector and the country has a large number of small and micro companies. The nature of Italy’s business landscape means that companies find it harder to pick up and develop the results of academic research.

“In this context of low investment by the productive sector,” say the authors, “the exploitation of public research results by industry therefore becomes crucial for the support of the country’s competitiveness.”

The authors also suggest that countries differ “because academic entrepreneurship is strongly affected by organisational culture, national laws, policies, and management systems”. For example, they suggest that “aversion to academic entrepreneurship is more evident in Italy”

On the other hand, in Italy the tenure system, where remuneration has more to do with seniority than scientific productivity, means that it would be easier for the country’s entrepreneurial academics to reduce their publishing output and concentrate on their business activities. “If this does not occur in Italy, then it should be even more so in other nations where career tracks and incentive systems are strongly linked to research performance.”

Michael Kenward is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business

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