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Non-STEM research commercialisation should be given more attention: here’s why

The British Council is committed to supporting and fostering the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The five-day residential program recently took place in Oxford. Photo: Oxentia

Rising unemployment rates and other related economic and social challenges call for a radical shift in how research is conceptualised and executed

This led to the launch of an ambitious collaboration and learning platform in 2021, the Innovation for African Universities, with a mandate to support universities in building their entrepreneurship ecosystems by establishing the necessary resources, structures, and policies, working in partnership with UK universities and industry partners.

The IAU has been implemented in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa through partnerships with UK institutions, reaching over 7,000 beneficiaries.

On the back of this, a report study on the mapping of the South Africa public universities innovation ecosystem, has revealed that the commercialisation of non-STEM research outputs is an area that is often ignored or unexploited within the majority of South African universities.

The mapping study was commissioned by Universities’ South Africa under the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education initiative, supported by the British Council as a strategic partner and executed by Oxentia, UK-based innovation management and technology commercialisation consultancy as a delivery partner between 2021 and early 2022.

The findings indicated that the South African innovation ecosystem is a relatively well developed, rapidly changing landscape, with pockets of excellence and good practice, and huge potential to contribute to economic growth through university research commercialisation activities.

As encouraging as this sounds, commercialisation of humanities, arts and social science research was reported to be a missing piece in the current research commercialisation puzzle!

The report presented a set of recommendations for three audiences – government, universities, and other supporting entities to stimulate commercialisation and impact generation from research outputs. One of the recommendations to the supporting entities was to stimulate and support Humanities, Arts and Social Science research commercialisation.

Why shift the focus to HASS research commercialisation:

1. Rising unemployment rates and other related economic and social challenges call for a radical shift in how research is conceptualised and executed, impact generation should not be optional, research should be conducted with the aim of contributing to societal impact.

2. Equipping students and researchers with the skills to upscale non-STEM related research outputs to services, products, and businesses could significantly increase the generation of SDG-aligned research outputs with not just intellectual value, but economic and social value as well.

3. Transforming graduates into job creators and not just job seekers requires a focus on all disciplines, not just STEM.

In the South African public universities innovation ecosystem mapping study, we administered a survey which confirmed that most universities had established systems, mechanisms, and processes in their institutions to support STEM research commercialisation.

Commercialisation of Humanities, Arts and Social Science Research on the other hand was not common. This was due to several reasons including lack of non-STEM research in some institutions, a lack of knowledge on how to commercialise non-STEM research outputs and non-STEM research being done, but not seen as a priority.

British Council-led initiative developed in response to these gaps

In response to the study findings, the British Council, with support from Universities’ South Africa, Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education program and the Human Sciences Research Council, spearheaded a pilot initiative.

The Strengthening Commercialisation Skills program aims to upskill academics from non-STEM disciplines, and technology transfer professionals with the skills needed to catalyse and stimulate the commercialisation of research.

“The secondary aim of the program is to unlock opportunities for UK and South Africa academics”

The secondary aim of the program is to unlock opportunities for UK and South Africa academics and technology transfer professionals to collaborate to advance non-STEM research commercialisation.

Seven pairs of academics and technology transfer professionals were recruited through a competitive process that required them to demonstrate that they had a project, idea or research that had potential to be scaled up for impact or could be commercialised.

Through a virtual training and mentorship program, participants could exchange knowledge on commercialising non-STEM research outputs, culminating in a five-day residential program that took place in the UK recently, in February 2023.

We wanted to bring together a dynamic group with varied levels of experience. We knew the training and mentorship aspects could have been delivered via ZOOM or TEAMS, but wanted to ensure the dynamic program made the most of networking and immersion in the ecosystems of Cambridge and Oxford universities. It offered:

1. knowledge exchange with like-minded colleagues with the same expertise in HASS, however from a UK context.

2. Immersion in some of the UK ecosystems

3. Strengthening of collaborations between Tech transfer function and academics

In the coming months, as an output of the pilot project, a set of contextualised guidelines for the Commercialisation of non-STEM research applicable to the Sub-Saharan Africa context will be published.

Additionally, a set of train the trainer workshops and dissemination events will be delivered by the participants to share their knowledge and continue the advocacy work within their institutions.

About the author: Meekness Lunga is senior regional programme manager for Higher Education – SSA at British Council.

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