Do different fields of knowledge lead to different types of knowledge transfer? A study of public research organisations in the UK

This post has been contributed by Maryam Ghorbankhani and Dr Federica Rossi

Public research and development (R&D) investment is an important driver of economic growth and socioeconomic development. Over time, social expectations around the effectiveness and efficiency of public R&D have escalated, leading to increasing demands for public research systems to ‘give back’ to society by transferring knowledge to industry and other external stakeholders.

In most countries including the UK, universities and public research organisations (PROs), the latter also called government or national laboratories, are main actors in the public research system, and the primary tools for the government to reach their key science policy targets. But despite the significant role that PROs play in producing knowledge to fulfil the needs of government and private sector’s access to frontier technology, the engagement of PROs in knowledge transfer (KT) activities is under-researched.

This paper aims to unveil the extent to which PROs differ in terms of their profiles of engagement in KT – intended as different combinations of resources and channels used to transfer knowledge to external stakeholders – and what explains these different profiles. We rely on a unique and purposefully constructed six-year panel dataset (2011/12-2017/18) of PROs in the United Kingdom (UK). The UK PRO sector is very varied, comprising organizations of different types, in relation to, among others, governance, affiliation, and remit. Given this variety, and PROs’ freedom to engage in many channels of KT, UK PROs are likely to have experimented over time with different KT approaches to find those that best suit their characteristics. Consequently, we are able to identify a variety of KT profiles and a particularly high degree of alignment between such profiles and some of the PROs’ organizational characteristics, including their field of knowledge specialization.

PROs’ KT engagement profiles

Through a combination of multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis applied to variables capturing the resources and channels that PROs use to engage in KT, we identify three profiles of KT engagement, which are stable over time.

The PROs with a “Market Commercialization” (MC) profile obtain a large share of their research funds competitively, and they rely on market commercialization both for their research outcomes (through patenting) and for the provision of services (through specialized companies). They also receive a relatively high share of income from private sources.

The PROs with a “User Collaboration” (UC) profile, rely on government-funded research and direct collaborations with users through research contracts, consultancies and the provision of services, managed by the PRO without relying on external companies.

The PROs with an “External Exploitation” (EE) profile are research-intensive institutions with high number of publications per employee and large core public funding to perform basic and long range applied research. They rely on external infrastructures for the exploitation of their knowledge outputs: spin-offs, incubators and companies dedicated to research commercialization.

KT engagement profiles and field of knowledge specialization

Each profile is related to specific organizational characteristics: size, income streams and field of knowledge specialization, which shows a strong knowledge-based differentiation. We find that PROs with a MC profile tend to specialise in the sciences of physical environment (e.g. geology), PROs with a UC profile tend to specialise in biological and social sciences, and PROs with a EE profile tend to specialise in technical and clinical sciences. We argue that the reason for the association of fields of knowledge specialisation and profiles of KT engagement is that the knowledge bases underpinning the various fields of knowledge display different degrees of user specificity and market readiness of knowledge outputs.

The technical and clinical sciences are characterised by knowledge that is often translated into product innovations that require very long development time to become market-ready. Hence, the main mode of KT is based on spinoff companies, which allow for further development before commercialisation, or on the licensing of intellectual property to companies willing to engage in their own further development.

The natural sciences are characterised by analytical knowledge that can be transferred in codified form and does not require very long development time to become market-ready. Among these, the study of the physical environment leads to findings that are generalisable and not very user-specific, hence they can be commercialised through the provision of outsourced services. In particular, many of these PROs transfer knowledge in the form of software codes, maps, models, or forecasting tools that can be used by various clients with minimal adaptation.

Social sciences knowledge does not require very long development times to become market ready, but the findings are often user-specific, and they require direct interactions with users to be transmitted adequately. Hence, the main mode of KT is based on interactions with users via consultancies and research contracts. Many of these PROs transfer knowledge in the form of policy and compliance advice and training, which require specific interactions with users. This group also includes some PROs specialised in the natural sciences, specifically in biology, agriculture, and environment. Like all natural sciences, biological sciences have a content of analytical knowledge, so a high degree of market readiness, but they are perhaps more user-specific than the sciences of the physical environment, and therefore they require direct interactions with users to be effectively transferred.

Hence, the nature of knowledge PROs produce, entails different degrees of market readiness and user specificity which in turn favor the use specific of KT channels and leads to different KT profiles. This framework helps us to explain emerging patterns of KT engagement in relation to organizsations whose research activities emerge from knowledge bases in specific fields, and in relation to different national contexts and also represents a first step to make sense of complex KT profiles of PROs, which so far have been under-researched.

This study offers multiple policy implications to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in public expenditure, particularly related to public science and innovation policies: the specificities of different PROs should be considered to advocate proper support and assessment of their impact on socioeconomic environment. For instance, it is more difficult to assess the impact of research carried out by PROs in EE profile compared to that of the PROs in UC and MC profiles, due to further development which is required to take place outside the PROs in EE profile. This study also suggests that PROs with different profiles would benefit from different types of support: EE profile PROs would benefit from access to seed fund and public venture capital for further innovation, MC profile PROs would benefit from access to fund and expertise to set up companies with commercialisation purposes, and UC profile PROs would benefit from support in setting up consultancy services and in networking.

The full paper is available as: de la Torre, E., Ghorbankhani, M., Rossi, F. Sagarra, M. (2021) : Knowledge transfer profiles of public research organisations: the role of fields of knowledge specialisation, Science and Public Policy, DOI: