With the Autumn Budget due on 22 November, together with an industrial strategy white paper, uncertainties remain over what path the UK economy will take post-Brexit. The government has made clear its plan to leverage the nation’s research strengths to meet the needs of business and society. But new research from Mattia Fosci and Rob Johnson suggests that academic reward and incentive cultures are still hampering efforts to create bridges between business and management researchers and society. Leading universities and business schools need to embrace their social responsibility and work more proactively to create a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

The idea that academia can and should play a more central role in society is hardly new – but it continues to rise up the agenda. A year ago, the UK government created a £4.7 billion Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) to support research and innovation in priority sectors, as part of a national push to increase research, development and commercialisation activities across the UK’s innovation system. With the industrial strategy white paper expected this month, the question of what role academia can play in the race to innovate has regained relevance. So far, the ISCF has pinned most of its hopes on the contribution of high-tech manufacturing and priority technologies, like robotics and artificial intelligence. The role of services, wider challenges of productivity, and inclusive growth – and the social, behavioural and management sciences that are so crucial to addressing these – is less clear.

Back in April, the Chartered Associations of Business Schools (CABS) responded to the industrial strategy green paper by stressing the importance of business and management research for UK economic growth. However, our recent study shows that the worlds of business research and business itself remain too far apart. The first is the domain of theory and fundamentals, the latter of practice and pragmatism. There is a growing realisation that this state of affairs can’t continue. How to change it, though, remains an open question.

The opportunities have never been riper. Academia and business are both working to meet the global agenda for 2030, reflected in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Since the 1990s, businesses have been seen as key actors in addressing problems such as poverty, climate change, and environmental degradation. Consumers have started to care about a brand’s social responsibility, and accountability has become a buzzword in corporate governance. Concepts such as the triple bottom line encapsulate the profound changes to business practice it requires. Businesses also have to contend with the rise of new business models and the sharing economy, and the development of technologies that are likely to undermine existing socio-economic structures (such as machine learning and artificial intelligence).

On top of that, the UK faces its own set of challenges – some of which are linked to a resurgence of nationalism and protectionism, and what Michael Bloomberg has described as “the single stupidest thing any country has ever done”. Brexit has also brought a renewed focus on many of the problems that have been affecting the country for a long time: growing inequality and limited social mobility, tax avoidance and the erosion of public spending, an ageing population and stagnant growth in worker productivity.

A recent CABS report includes plenty of examples of UK business schools engaging with private and public sector partners to address practical challenges. The recent Industrial Strategy Commission report, a joint initiative by Policy@Manchester at the University of Manchester and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield, is another reminder of how academic expertise can contribute to framing high-level practical responses to today’s challenges. But these initiatives still involve only a very small number of academics, while mainstream business and management research seems to be even more stuck in the past. Too many researchers are writing about issues that are no longer relevant, mired in multi-year peer review processes, or fixated on journal impact factors and theoretical debates.

Our work for Emerald Publishing looked at the gap between academia and practice in business and management, and found that much research is still characterised by its lack of relevance and accessibility. A survey of over 1,600 business and management authors showed a clear divide between professionals and academics in their choice of publication. Professionals want to publish in an outlet that values practical relevance, whilst academics favour journals with a high impact factor. The survey also revealed that 88% of academics are aware of the importance of doing research in collaboration with professionals, and that 74% of them have opportunities to engage with professionals, but that only 36% feel incentivised to do so and just 26% have the necessary resources. In other words, engagement with practice is a luxury that most business and management researchers cannot afford.

Figure 1: Perceived barriers to research collaboration – proportion of respondents that agree with the statement (Academics: n=1,423; Professionals: n=220)

Much of the evidence we gathered suggests that academic research is largely self-referential because the system of prestige, funding allocation and career progression remains largely centred on notions of scholarly impact related to publications. To put it bluntly, authors are faced with two options: undertaking socially impactful research (i.e. research that solves critical problems for businesses, governments or civil society organisations) or writing academically impactful publications (i.e. based on research that fits into popular academic debates and is likely to be cited by those engaged in those debates). The latter option merely requires a thorough knowledge of the literature. By contrast, the first option requires a good understanding of practical problems; some connections with non-academic organisations; and often the time, ability and desire to negotiate and manage long-term research collaborations that may or may not result in four-star publications. It may well be, as Catherine Durose has argued previously, that “some commentators see academic practice as a refuge from engagement”, but for many others the return on investment simply does not stack up.

In this context, the growing demand on researchers to be more relevant and demonstrate impact is only a partial response. The impact funding “stick” – as exemplified by the REF impact weighting – has had the merit of reframing the conversation around impact, but it does not directly address the structural disincentives faced by individual academics. By contrast, the impact funding “carrot” used by the Industrial Strategy Research Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund does provide direct incentives, but rolling out such approach to all academic research could be seen as an attempt to co-opt academia to the government agenda. Neither initiative goes far enough to challenge academic mentality, but it shows that research funders are willing to change the incentives around research impact in the UK.

The next step in the journey to impact will have to come from business schools and universities. Business schools can cement their role as anchor institutions that support local companies, help academics establish relationships with professionals, and create opportunities for collaborations. Universities can contribute by reviewing academic career progression in a way that rewards impactful research (and researchers), and mobilise academic impact champions and other influential voices that can challenge the cultural inertia.

The final, and decisive step, is a sharp change in the culture, vision, and practice of researchers. This, in turn, is underpinned by strong incentives for institutions and for individuals to ensure that publicly funded business research contributes to creating a competitive, inclusive and sustainable economy in the UK. Perhaps the seeds for change have already been planted and we just need to wait for change to percolate through the system. But it is unlikely that current measures will address the structural disincentives that prevent researchers from engaging with practice. What our research showed is that the path to impact in business and management is still painfully long and difficult, and that progress is very slow. Looking at the speed at which the outside world is mutating, the question is whether business research has the time and imagination to catch up. Until then, few will be surprised that business research receives scant attention in government economic policy.

For further information about the study this blog post is based on please contact the authors (details below).

Featured image credit: Carrot And Stick Incentives Lead Manage by Alan O’Rourke (licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Mattia Fosci is Senior Consultant at Research Consulting and a public policy specialist with a background in research, public advocacy, and business. He tweets at @MattiaFosci.

Rob Johnson is the founder and director of Research Consulting, a mission-driven business which works to improve the effectiveness and impact of research and scholarly communication. He tweets @rschconsulting.

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