Universities are bad at co-operation, which is why a new research initiative in the South-west is attracting attention. What’s the catch, asks Harriet Swain

Studying for a PhD can be a lonely business, but that does not mean it has to be done in isolation. In Carly Daniels' case, it has involved the collaboration and support of a charity set up to boost Cornish fish stocks, two universities, and the Great Western Research project – not to mention the participation of several thousand baby lobsters.

In addition, Daniels, who is supervised by academics at both Plymouth University and Exeter University while working on her PhD at the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow, Cornwall, is part of a network of 129 other GWR-sponsored PhD students and 20 fellows in the South-west. Through the project's Access Grid video-conference system, she can also communicate with thousands of other students and businesses across the world.

This kind of collaboration between academics at different institutions and between academia and industry closely complies with recommendations made in the 2003 Lambert report on links between business and higher education. This called on universities to work harder to develop relationships with the business community; on business to be more open to the research and development coming from universities; and on the Government to provide cash to help this happen.

The result has been to stimulate a number of new co-operative relationships between academics and business people throughout the UK. But the GWR formula – which links two or more institutions with each other and with a business that contributes 50 per cent of research costs – is unique.

Phil Willis, chair of the universities select committee, thinks it could provide a model for the rest of the country.

"My interest in it is twofold," he says. "First – how do you get research institutions to co-operate with each other? And then, how do you get them at the same time to co-operate with business so they create a win, win, win situation for individuals, business, and institutions? Great Western seems to have hit [on] a formula that does exactly that."

The project was put together three years ago when the universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter began to explore new ways of working together and identified a number of themes in which institutions in the South-west were particularly strong, from materials science and sustainability to the creative arts.

David Billington, the project's executive director, says those behind the scheme wanted to get away from the idea that universities need to compete against each other and secure grants, in part, to prevent someone from another institution doing so.

"We realised that by working together we could become much more globally competitive than we were," he says.

Kevin Edge, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Bath and a founder of the project, says: "It was really a question of how we might collaborate by working to our strengths and bringing together complementary skills and knowledge from individual universities in each of the themes we had chosen, but to do that in a way that would lead to innovation by business and industry."

With funding from the South West Regional Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), they developed Great Western Research, which now runs 130 PhD studentships and 20 research fellowships in universities throughout the South-west, as well as a number of training programmes.

At the heart of the scheme are the PhD studentships. These involve academics at two separate institutions coming up with a proposal for a piece of research on which they can work together and which is likely to be of interest to industry. They then need to get a business to agree to fund half the cost of a PhD student to carry out this research – £9,200 a year over three years.

GWR assesses submitted proposals according to how well the relationships have been articulated and the economic benefits to business and the region, and their academic merits. If a proposal is approved, GWR agrees to fund the other half of the studentship. The student is able to draw on the expertise and facilities of supervisors at two different institutions, as well as the expertise of the business, while businesses benefit by getting access to cutting-edge research.

Under the fellowship part of the project, academic fellows are appointed to carry out research at two institutions in the South-west. Hefce funds the fellowships for three years on the understanding that the lead institution will agree to offer the fellow a permanent position after that. Meanwhile, the funding council has also paid for all institutions in the South-west to have the use of Access Grid for regular seminars and training sessions for all those involved in the GWR network.

"The most important thing is getting people talking to each other," says Billington. He says academics and business people frequently get together through the studentships and then decide to collaborate on other kinds of research.

Airbus, which has a base at Filton, near Bristol, has been a particularly enthusiastic supporter of the project, sponsoring half the costs of eight studentships, supervised in partnerships between the universities of Bristol and Bath.

"For Airbus it helps develop our understanding of future technologies and what benefits they offer," says Martyn Cantrell, composites engineer and project manager with Airbus for GWR. But he says the company sees it as a long-term investment, rather than quick returns. "As it's very blue sky, in terms of potential and products to take to the market, that's not what we are expecting. It's about the idea."

This approach can be a harder one to take for small businesses, but the Regional Development Agency insisted that these had to be included in the GWR project. In fact, persuading them to pay nearly £10,000 a year to support a student researcher turned out to be easier than expected. Paul Hudson, GWR project manager, says the scheme allows smaller enterprises to tap into academics' international contacts as well as being a "very low-risk way for them to investigate a problem which has been at the back of their minds".

More challenging are issues surrounding intellectual property – something highlighted in the Lambert report as a potential sticking point in university-business relations. Billington says the key here has been to sort them out at the beginning of the relationship and to ensure all parties are clear on where they stand. Usually, he says, the company has to realise that it will be able to exploit a student's ideas, rather than expect the student to develop a new product.

The project is due to run until the beginning of 2011 and those behind it have started looking for funding to continue beyond that. "One thing we have learnt is that money is very important," says Billington. "Unless you have money to lubricate these relationships you don't get very far." But he argues that the project has already brought more than £12m worth of extra funding into the area by attracting grants, and is relatively recession-proof. "The worst thing you can do in a recession is stop doing research," he says.

There is another benefit for recession-blighted students, as Daniels, busy researching her PhD in the use of complex sugars and so-called friendly bacteria to improve the survival and growth of lobsters, recognises. "Having the universities on board has not only increased my ability to do my work but has also increased my contacts," she says. "Hopefully in future those contacts will come in when I'm looking for a job."

Hot prospects for green energy

Colin Palmer, founder of Wind Prospect, the global renewable energy company, became involved with Great Western Research through just the kind of networking it is keen to promote – “a mixture of design and serendipity,” he says.

Hewasbecoming increasingly interested in the potential of solar energy for his business when he was introduced at a party to someone conducting solar research at Bristol University. Shein turn introduced him to Neil Fox, aGWR project fellow who put together aproposal for a PhD studentship.

The successful student, Tomas Martin, is supervised both by Fox in Bristol’s chemistry department and by Duncan Allsopp in the engineering department of the University of Bath. He also regularly spends time at Wind Prospect. As part of his PhD, he is conducting market research for the company into solar energy.

“Working with industry gives us a great advantage because our research is hopefully going to be a commercial product,” he says. “Doing market research into the solar side is a real advantage in telling us what we need to be concentrating on.”

Palmer sees the advantage for his business too: “It was a very good way to dip our toes into the world of solar, while being relatively low-cost. We are learning a lot about solar energy and learning how to position ourselves.”

He recognises the need for Martin to maintain a certain amount of distance from the commercial side of things but is confident the arrangement will pay off.

“Even if we don’t get any patent rights we will have knowledge that other people couldn’t replicate very quickly, so we will have a position in the industry that makes us able to get ahead,” he says