The future of social science commercialisation


26th May 2020

Following our interview with Tony Walker (Deputy Director of the Masood Enterprise Centre at Alliance Manchester Business School) earlier this month, Alex Riley – Aspect Broker at the University of Manchester – reflects on why the outlook appears to be so positive for social science commercialisation.

Earlier this month we spoke to Tony Walker, Deputy Director of the Masood Enterprise Centre at Alliance Manchester Business School, about the growing relevance of commercialisation in the social sciences as a tool to channel academic expertise into the solving of real-world problems, particularly those emerging around new digital technologies.

A key theme coming out of this discussion related to the huge potential to drive growth, increase productivity and tackle social issues through market solutions that promote best practice in social science commercialisation and entrepreneurial skills among social scientists. While the wide-ranging benefits of this approach have always been well understood in fields such as engineering, the physical sciences and biomedicine, the social sciences have for the most part lagged behind in the creation of pipelines and ecosystems to promote the commercialisation of research. This is in spite of the fact that social scientists are in many ways better placed to take advantage of the possibilities of research commercialisation, as they do not face the costly and time-consuming obstacles of conducting clinical trials or building a prototype that researchers in these disciplines must  overcome to bring their ideas to market.

As a member of the Aspect network, the University of Manchester continues to the lead the way in the promotion of social science commercialisation. Walker related several examples of successful commercialisation such as In Place of War, a social enterprise working in war torn regions of the world that uses music and drama to resolve tensions and develop tools for non-violent conflict resolution. In Place of War is a particularly interesting example as it demonstrates the value of commercialisation even in areas, such as the arts and humanities, that have traditionally not been thought of as compatible with a commercial or entrepreneurial approach.

Tony Walker also explained the role the Masood Enterprise Centre at Alliance Manchester Business School plays in developing entrepreneurial skills among undergraduates, postgraduates and early career researchers with social science backgrounds. This includes the provision of teaching, workshops and co-curricular activities such as competitions that build the skills social scientists need to create their own start-ups, or to bring an entrepreneurial edge to their work in industry, government or the third sector. This positive role is bolstered by our work with Aspect’s SUCCESS programme, which provides training, support and funding to social science academics with innovative research ideas who seek to develop these into viable commercial enterprises.

Programmes such as these are especially important to the future of social science commercialisation as they help to rectify the lack of business skills among social science researchers and institutional support for commercialisation. These two issues are significant in that they were identified by a 2015 report by the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences as key obstacles to the success of efforts to drive social science commercialisation.

Tony Walker also highlighted that commercialised research in the social sciences would be particularly well placed to take advantage of digital futures as well as to get to grips with the challenges and opportunities associated with them, as they are able to quickly ‘level up’ their research into marketable offerings and make them widely available using the tools and processing power associated with new digital technologies. Examples of this positive synergy can be found in Manchester’s candidates on the SUCCESS programme, with one researcher seeking to address the issue of modern slavery and supply chain compliance through the use of blockchain technology, and another using their background as a musical scholar to work with gaming companies to improve the use of game audio in video games.

All in all, our discussion with Tony Walker made clear how positive the outlook appears to be for commercialisation in the social sciences. With support growing for commercialisation at an institutional level, and with growing buy-in from academics themselves, we are sure to see even more innovative commercial offerings along the lines of the examples discussed here as well as a steadily growing acceptance of commercialisation as an essential strategy for bridging the divide between academic research and real world problems going forward.

Photo by Philipp Birmes from Pexels

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