There is a fairly widespread perception in the cluster policy community that academia is a ‘weak link’ in cluster dynamics. This is not universally true, of course, and there are many good examples of ‘research-driven clusters’ where universities play a leading role. However, there is evidence to suggest that academia doesn’t tend to play a very active role outside of these strongly science-led clusters. As Elvira Uyarra and Mabel Sánchez-Barrioluengo highlight in a recent special issue of Ekonomiaz, studies show that the proportion of academics involved in research collaboration with the private-sector is relatively low, and that universities are an infrequent innovation partner for firms, as compared to suppliers, competitors, etc..

At the recent Clusters3 conference in Belfast, I participated in a panel discussion that sought to analyse the reasons why academia might struggle to engage in clusters, or put another way why clusters might struggle to engage academia. Some reasons relate to the inherent challenges in generating cooperative dynamics between business and academia, each of which has quite a different working culture. The incentives, pressures and timescales that academics work to are typically very different to those of the private sector, and there are also often communication barriers (it could be argued that academia and business ‘speak different languages’ a lot of the time).

Other reasons relate to the way in which the policy programmes supporting clusters are conceived. Cluster policies are most often designed and implemented from the industry, competitiveness or economic development departments of Government. These are – rightly – very careful to emphasise that cluster initiatives should be business-led. However this can lead to a lack of balance with respect to the engagement of non-business actors such as universities. Indeed, the incentives for universities to engage in cluster initiatives are often limited because support for their research falls under other policy programmes led by different Government departments (for science, or for education). This is a clear example of where ‘silos’ at the policy level can create a barrier to cooperation between firms and universities at the cluster level.

Reducing barriers to the engagement of university academics in clusters is an important challenge because of the different things that they can bring to cluster dynamics. It is natural to think first about the STEM disciplines within universities, and the relevant ‘hard’ knowledge that many of these academics hold for innovation challenges. But the social sciences too can play important roles with ‘softer’ knowledge that can lay the ground for better collaborative dynamics within clusters. It is also important not to underestimate the role of training within universities, alongside research. Given the benefits from collaboration in today’s innovation-driven economy, it is vital that university programmes across all disciplines provide students with the motivation and transversal skills to work collaboratively.

Building on these arguments, the discussion in Belfast identified a number of specific measures that could improve the engagement of academia in clusters. PhD programmes were highlighted as a particularly important mechanism for their bridging capacity. Funding programmes can be used to encourage the mobility of PhD students into firms, thereby cementing links also with supervisors and research teams in the student’s university. An interesting example is the “industrial PhD” programme in Navarre, which supports the employment of PhD students in local firms when their research is linked to the priorities of the region’s smart specialisation strategy (see Elena-Perez et al).

Other innovative measures to encourage the involvement of academia with private firms, and potentially therefore in clusters, include initiatives that ‘match-make’ academic expertise with business needs and/or offer funding for projects based on specific innovation challenges (often through the use of innovation vouchers). At an earlier Clusters3 learning journey in Inverness, for example, we learned about Scotland’s Interface Programme, and Northern Ireland has a challenge-based initiative called Connect.

Exchanging these types of experiences in the framework of the Clusters3 project over the last two years has been extremely valuable. The project now moves into its ‘action’ phase, where the learning will be translated into specific policy innovations in the partner regions participating in the project. Amongst other things, it will be interesting to see whether their actions break down some of the barriers for more active and effective engagement of academia in clusters.