Why do industries choose to work with UK Universities? In the Praxis Auril autumn blog series, we’re looking at R&D-centric multinationals who have significant research programs in the UK, and we’re asking them what works in UK research collaborations and what doesn’t. Dr Steven Harris, Head of External Partnerships and Brokering at BAE Systems talks about the company’s robust apprenticeship program, and why the defence sector has unique challenges and opportunities in university partnerships.
About Dr Steven Harris, Head of External Partnerships and Brokering at BAE Systems
Dr Harris has spent his career at BAE Systems (currently 30 years and counting), and there he began managing external partnerships in 2012. He is responsible for developing strategic relationships in academic and government institutions, as well as developing collaborative engagement with SMEs.
BAE Systems is a technology-led defence, aerospace and security company with an international footprint. In the UK, BAE Systems concentrates on five strategic university partners and maintains working relationships with dozens of other UK universities. The company has also developed an MSc level apprenticeship program with one of its strategic partners.
BAE Systems’ current strategic university partners include:
- Cranfield University (unmanned air vehicles, avionics testing)
- University of Birmingham (quantum sensing, virtual reality, immersive systems)
- University of Manchester (novel materials, advanced manufacturing)
- University of Southampton (sound and vibration, artificial intelligence, data fusion, maritime)
- University of Strathclyde (non-destructive testing)
BAE Systems invests significantly in UK partnerships. What works so well about them?
The UK has outstanding universities; if you look at the league tables, then pound-for-pound, the UK universities punch well above their weight, and collaborative investment delivers significant benefits for businesses and academia. At BAE Systems, we invest about £10-15 million annually in UK universities – around £10m on research and technology, and the remainder on learning and development activities. In addition to UK university partnerships, BAE Systems invests in universities in the USA and Australia. The models adopted for interaction with universities vary in each country, and align to different business needs. In the UK, we prefer to co-develop more than commission work. We’ve found that if we just give universities teams “build to print” type projects, results aren’t as good as if we explore a challenge together, which leads to more innovative thinking.
We prefer universities to focus on innovative research. Sometimes we ask for a consultancy or contract work, but in general that is the exception, not the norm. The UK Catapults have been very beneficial to work with – particularly this is true of our Air business. Our teams link with Catapult facilities to move technology to a higher technology readiness level (TRL). As a company, it is easier for us to adopt technology at a TRL 7+, and then secure customer support to further develop that technology.
BAE Systems has chosen to concentrate on specialist centres in the UK. Why is that?
Clearly, our rationale for working with the universities we have chosen as strategic partners is due to their expertise in areas of importance to the company. Our product portfolio covers land, sea, air and cyber, and our partners offer us expertise in those areas. Given this, it should be no surprise to see we’re working with Southampton and Strathclyde, with their strong maritime pedigrees. Cranfield delivers expertise in aerospace, but they also have significant expertise in complex engineering integration. BAE Systems has a significant manufacturing capability, and we wanted to work closer with Manchester and Birmingham on materials. Birmingham has also been key for BAE Systems in areas such as advanced reality and virtual reality and is opening our eyes to the world of Quantum.
However, it’s worth stressing that when we signed the university framework agreements with the universities, we did so with not just a single department, but with the whole university, in order to have support in current and future technology challenges. In making our decision about who to collaborate with, we considered the skill set of the university in the round. We also understand that collaborations take a time to flourish, and that we need to take a long-term view.
In order to make our partnerships function, BAE Systems put in place a management structure and signed long-term agreements with our five strategic university partners. This makes it easier for us to work openly together, but also means we have made a long-term commitment to each other, and we will work as a team. It’s key to us, that we develop a strong partnership between everyone in the team, and we aim to get everyone to work together, with some doing the fundamentals on a project, whilst others help with the implementation.
When BAE Systems sets up a challenge, we like to encourage diversity in the potential teams. Experience has shown us that we need a mix of scientists, engineers and social scientists working together. That can be difficult as they don’t speak the same technical language. Without the scientist there is nothing to build on, but without the early engagement of engineer, you may not be able to build “it” and if no social scientist is involved, there is the real danger that you end up with something you can build, but just can’t use. We’re really trying to work with the strategic universities, and their various faculties to do all this, better. But it’s a challenge. We’ve got to help them build intramural relationships, and that can’t be rushed. It takes a bit longer to get to know them, but it’s worth it. We started by inviting our key universities to our technology scouting/planning meetings and share our future technology plans with them. This may sound unusual in the defence industry, but we’re really open, because we believe in open innovation and want to build trust with our partners.
BAE has an MSc-level apprenticeship program. Why has the business chosen to develop that?
One thing we’ve invested highly in is learning and development activities. We have a very robust apprenticeship program managed by our Director of Education, Richard Hamer, which this year began an MSc apprenticeship delivered by Cranfield University. The lectures are delivered online, and students find that appealing. As an initial trial, a group of ~ 90 apprentices took the online programme. The lectures were delivered online by the lecturers at Cranfield, who worked really hard to make it as interactive as possible. After the inevitable initial IT challenges, the apprentices found it easy to use and effective. I can see more of this type of online delivery in the future.
Do you think the defence sector is different in terms of how you approach academic collaboration?
In defence, we often work closely with the UK military on technology challenges and even with competitor companies. At low TRL, there are generally no issues. We use mechanisms such as the Defence Academic Pathways (DAP), and we set common sector challenges and pull together our different university partners to take on the challenges. DAP has agreed models around funding and intellectual property management which are agreed by all parties. This means we are clear on T&Cs when setting challenges. This is key – issues with T&Cs can be more of a challenge than the technical challenge, if one is not careful!
Having clear terms and conditions (Ts&Cs) up-front with any of our university projects is essential for all our different academic work. It is much better to be up front and honest about these conditions, particularly around intellectual property (IP), as this can cause problems later if not resolved early. This is a key reason for our decision to focus our company funding on fewer partners. In past, in an average year, we worked with 55+ UK universities, but now we’ve decided to focus on a key set of strategic university partners; that currently stands at five. This allows us to be more effective and efficient in setting up and funding work at these universities. With any investment, we have to ensure that what we work on in collaborations is really high utility. Given the complexity, long usage of our products, and the length of time it takes to make changes due to certification for use, it is essential that we have a focussed academic team. Our customers demand that we be innovative. To keep our R&D on the very cutting edge, we have work creatively with universities that know us and how to work with us. So less is definitely more, in this instance.
Are there unique challenges of working with UK Universities?
It’s not a problem that’s unique to the UK, but it can be a challenge sometimes to agree about the Ts&Cs in a project. When we set up our UK Strategic University partnerships, we were clear in our own minds that we wanted to have standard Ts&Cs for all the partners. It would not be right for us to have, for example, favourable IP and commercial terms, with one university. So when we engaged, we were clear up front: this is the IP framework, and it’s the same for all. To be honest it’s the thing we always raised first, it saved time and it avoided IP scuttling the whole project, after a lot of time and money had been invested. A lot of collaboration ideas, great though they may be, won’t come to fruition if the management of IP becomes unsolvable.
What UK best practice do you take forward into other country collaboration programs?
We have a UK model and can share what we’ve learned in the UK, but it must be locally-driven in any other country. It would be very naïve to just apply the UK model without understanding what is different culturally, or structurally in a different country. How governments funds research in different countries also needs to be understood.
The UK Research Councils, under UKRI, are outstanding; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), in particular deserves credit as they are key to the continued success of the UK engineering and physics academic ecosystem. All the UK research councils, are incredibly knowledgeable in their individual areas, and work hard to support the UK academic R&T. In our Strategic Universities Partnerships, we have worked hard to work closely with the EPSRC, so EPSRC and Innovate UK are members of the BAE Systems UK University Steering Board, along with our UK University partners. However, it may not be possible, for example, in other countries to embed the equivalent of the EPSRC in the local university management structures. So this is why we feel the UK university model could be used as a template, but would have to be adapted.
I believe it is also worth stressing the importance of the Research Councils (RCs) in the ecosystem. I admit to being very pro the research councils; I serve on research councils activities if asked, and I encourage my industry colleagues to do the same. To be frank, it’s an honour to be asked. However, I do feel that some academics undervalue the work the RCs do for them. Without the RCs showcasing the impact of the research, there would be no money to do research. The EPSRC has worked very hard to highlight the impact of the research they fund, and this has helped maintain the level of funding. This task is not as clear cut for other councils. Take the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which is often underappreciated, yet key innovative areas such as the UK gaming industry are also ably supported by the AHRC. If you look at the technology developed, it is clearly innovative and applicable in other domains. The route that they have followed to develop the technology is probably not the one that would have been chosen by the standard engineering and physics community, but nevertheless, it’s still led to huge levels of impact. For me this shows that diversity is a really important thing.
A final thought is that research collaborations are long-term relationships, and you have to build trust. Like any relationship, if you are going to enter into a partnership, do it with your eyes wide open, and show an interest in your partner’s challenges as well as their successes.
See the interview with Damian Kelly of Croda
See the interview with Ed Krause of Ford
See the interview with Mark Jefferies and Kate Barnard of Rolls Royce
See the interview with Paul Beasley of Siemens
See the interview with Malcolm Skingle of GSK
See the interview with Matt Ball of Thales