Toward Successful Academic-Industry Collaboration in Energy Research

In the midst of a global energy transition, collaborations between academics and practitioners are becoming increasingly important. While these partnerships have primarily served to validate scientific research in real-world settings until very recently, they are now seen as essential for solving complex real-world problems, such as the energy transition.

Previous research on the topic of how to build successful collaborations between academia and industry has primarily focused on the barriers to collaboration. A new paper recently published in Energy Policy investigates the root factors that underlie these barriers, specifically focusing on the relationships between social scientists and industry professionals. As social scientists themselves, the authors of the new paper (Dr. Nicole Sintov of The Ohio State University and Dr. Geertje Schuitema of the University College Dublin) take a fresh perspective on collaboration by framing it as an inherently social process. They argue that the social dynamics of the team are integral to the overall success of collaborative projects.

If collaboration is so challenging, why do it in the first place? Both academics and practitioners stand to benefit from collaboration. Scientists can emerge from the academic “bubble” and test their theories in the real world. They may also develop new research questions as a result of this new perspective, find internship and job opportunities for students, and gain a competitive edge when applying for research funding. For industry professionals, product development may benefit from testing and troubleshooting with academics. Private businesses could also find it advantageous to market themselves as engaged in independent research, in addition to creating a pipeline to recruit future employees, and providing continued education opportunities to current employees if desired.

Despite these benefits, many questions surrounding the efficacy and success of industry-academia partnerships still remain. As Sintov and Schuitema point out, there are certain tendencies exhibited by academics and practitioners, often unintentional, which may be perceived in a negative manner by the other party. For instance, there is a tendency among some academics to assume a sense of intellectual superiority and “talk down” to non-academics (academic arrogance). Within industry, there is an inclination to focus more on practical outcomes and dismiss the development of theory and/or fundamental knowledge (industry intransigence). These tendencies can fuel the unproductive social dynamics that the authors of the paper point out are crucial to successful collaborations.

Furthermore, goals and values – what is incentivized, what drives promotions and career development – in academia versus private industry tend to be quite different. This is driven largely by institutional structures. Whereas industry values its own products, private knowledge, and practical (often short-term) outcomes, social scientists value generalizable knowledge and publicizing findings to broader audiences, albeit primarily via academic journals and conferences. These differences, combined with academic arrogance and industry intransigence, often lead to social breakdowns, resulting in collaborations that fail to meet the expectations of either party.

These social breakdowns can manifest themselves in different ways throughout the duration of a project. For instance, in defining project goals, industry is often focused on competitiveness, new products and services, and short-term, internal implications. This does not offer an easy context for social scientists to pursue basic theoretical research, and hence social scientists may “hide” their theoretical interests, perhaps assuming that industry will be disinterested or not understand. These “secret” agendas may surface later and weaken the trust between partners when industry is left wondering why their social scientist partners did not raise these agendas from the start. Both parties may hold back from raising questions, assumptions, or concerns, instead assuming – “they/we’re the experts, they/we know what they/we are doing.”

As the project progresses, parties continue to be subject to biases and assumptions, which can operate in any project, but may be more likely when parties have very different goals and values. For instance, optimism bias occurs when people focus on the most optimistic project outcomes possible, making positive assumptions about a project’s progress and minimizing negative information when evidence suggests otherwise. People also tend to underestimate their own, but not others’, task completion times, known as optimistic prediction bias. This can slow a project schedule and set it up for contingency mishaps. One party may jump to conclusions about lack of apparent progress, though not necessarily voice this to the other party, which can result in disappointment and frustration.

Regardless of when and how a conflict manifests, Sintov and Schuitema maintain that the key to achieving successful collaboration is fostering healthy social dynamics. The foundation for this, Sintov and Schuitema contend, is open two-way communication channels, which may benefit from higher frequency and face-to-face format, particularly when new collaborations are launched. With this foundation of open communication, co-developing a set of agreed-upon project goals can also help foster healthy social dynamics by getting all parties on the same page and setting broad expectations about the project. Additionally, healthy social dynamics may be more likely when parties not only understand, but come to appreciate and become open to sharing one another’s values, however different they may be. In addition to individual project-based efforts, a serious transformation of institutional values and incentives, communication patterns, and ways of evaluating impacts can aid in this effort to bring collaborative energy research to its full potential.

Although the authors stress the importance of collaborations in energy research, they also caution that not every project warrants collaborative work. Sometimes projects do not require collaboration at all, and in other instances, projects may be served well when parties work in parallel—not truly collaborating, but working alongside one another. Additionally, the conclusions of this paper likely apply to domains beyond energy research, where complex problems are better addressed by social scientist-industry collaboration than by either party alone.

While academic arrogance and industry intransigence may hinder the success of social scientist-industry collaborations, they can be overcome when both parties are willing to step outside of their respective comfort zones and accommodate each other’s unique priorities. Proper communication, agreed upon expectations, and shared values can pave the way to good social dynamics, and ultimately, successful collaboration between social scientists and industry professionals.

This article draws upon a report recently published in the journal Energy Policy, entitled Odd Couple or perfect pair? Tensions and recommendations for social scientist-industry partnerships in energy research. This research was jointly produced by Dr. Nicole Sintov, of The Ohio State University, and Geertje Schuitema, of the University College Dublin School of Business.