Scientists prefer to work with other scientists rather than firms

Scientists do not like to collaborate with firms when doing their research. They rather work with their peers. This is shown in an article that was published in the academic Journal of Technology Transfer. Governments and funding bodies have been trying for years to stimulate the collaboration between universities and industry in order to spur innovation.

The researchers came to their conclusions by giving  a series of choice tasks to 3145 scientists from Western-Europe and North-America. Each task described two hypothetical scientific collaboration projects. The projects in the choice tasks varied systematically on different aspects, including the type of collaboration partner, and the expected benefits of the collaboration in the form of research funding or publications in a scientific journal. “Our study shows that the expected scientific journal publications from a collaboration are by far the most important motivation for scientists to collaborate. And publishing in scientific journals is just easier with fellow-scientists”, says lead-investigator Frank van Rijnsoever from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “We also found that scientists do not like to work on projects that contribute to the profits of commercial enterprises” adds his colleague Laurens Hessels from the Dutch Rathenau Institute and Leiden University.


The study also gives indications on how to promote the collaboration between universities and industry. One possibility is to incentivize collaboration using rewards. This could be done by making collaboration with industry a criterium for academic promotion. Another possibility is to enlarge the budgets of subsidized collaboration projects with industry. A measure that had relatively little effect was to increase the salary of scientists that collaborate with firms. “The vast majority of scientists are driven by content and scientific acknowledgement, rather than by their pay slip” says Hessels.

Mutual reluctance

The researcher themselves are critical about promoting collaboration using rewards. Van Rijnsoever: “Earlier research has shown that companies often do not like to collaborate with scientists at universities. The reluctance is thus mutual. One can wonder if you should heavily invest in forging relationships when both parties are not very eager. It might be better to focus on alternative forms of scientific knowledge utilization that both parties do like? Perhaps via education? 

Frank van Rijnsoever is a researcher and associate professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, faculty of Geosciences. His research focuses on the behavioural aspects of innovation and how policy can influence this behaviour.

van Rijnsoever, F.J., Hessels, L.K. How academic researchers select collaborative research projects: a choice experiment. Journal of Technology Transfer (2020).
The study was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).