In a seminar that we provide for senior postdocs and group leaders, we talk about the topic of funding. After covering the usual suspects, I am asking whether the attendees have ever considered funding from industry. Fred, who is currently getting ready for his first professorship applications, shoots out a knee-jerk answer, „No, I can´t imagine being drafted to become the extended workbench of a corporation. If I wanted to do that, I’d rather work for them directly and earn more!“
I can´t imagine being drafted to become the extended workbench of a corporation
That´s exactly the prejudice I intend to tackle during the seminar. „With every funding source you need to ask whether it fits to your research and whether you´re being exploited or supported,“ I reply. I then pause long enough to allow the attendees eyes to slowly move to Jane. She had reported a few minutes earlier that her scholarship foundation had recently dropped her like a hot potato when a competing group published results related to her industry-funded research topic. You can encounter tough conditions with every funding body, even non-profit foundations and associations. „You need to check with every funding source, regardless if it´s privately or publicly funded.“ The arguments that funding from industry is somewhat ‚dirty‘ and could damage your integrity as researcher are increasingly viewed as outdated. Securing funding is a crucial criterion for any job application in academia. As long as you do good research, it doesn´t matter where the money comes from. With a well-rounded portfolio of funding sources you can thus score major points during your application procedure.
If you do secure industry funding, you indeed have to deal with a partner with complex self-interests. Be sure to check up front to what degree you will retain your freedom of research. Can you still publish, and if so, what limitations apply? With whom and in what manner can you share your results and ideas? Question the motives of your partner as well: Are you interesting to them because your PhD students are simply cheaper than scientists in industry? Or does the collaboration aim at developing a commercially relevant application on the basis of your research?
After a lively discussion, I add, „You should also keep the development of your PhD students and postdocs in mind. Some of them may want to transition to industry careers after they leave your group. For them, an industry collaboration would be a great experience, and their market value would increase.“
And you as their group leader would develop the reputation that you care for the professional development of your students and also possess a network outside of academia.