Any doctors in the factory?
The creation of a European industrial doctorate scheme is moving up the political agenda. Support from the business sector is strong and the European Parliament is expected to back the idea later this month. But experience with national doctorates that combine industrial and academic perspectives suggests that a European scheme will not be straightforward to implement.
The inspiration for creating a European industrial doctorate comes from national schemes running in northern Europe since the early 1970s, beginning in Denmark and later spreading to Scandinavia, France and the UK, amongst others. The idea is that the student (or doctoral candidate) splits his time between a university and a company, carrying out a research and development (R&D) project relevant to the company.
Mix of funding
Both sides provide a PhD supervisor and funding comes from a mix of public and private sources. In theory, industrial PhDs can work in any discipline, but in practice science and technology subjects dominate, with the social sciences and humanities remaining at the margins.
The creation of a European equivalent of these national schemes has received strong backing from BusinessEurope, the employers’ federation, which sees benefits for the labour market as well as participating companies. “The industrial PhD student can acquire an excellent level of training and recognised research experience, learn how to deal with the real-life situations the company faces and learn how to evolve instinctively within these two distinct worlds,” says Daniel Cloquet, its director of industrial affairs.
Companies would benefit from access to academic expertise and resources, while universities would have a chance to forge links with industry, extend their research and apply its results.
The idea has been picked up by the European Parliament’s culture and education committee in its report on university business dialogue, due to go before the assembly later in May. It calls on the European Commission to create a European industrial PhD scheme as part of the mobility and career development strand of its framework programme for research. The aim would be to promote targeted and affordable research for European companies as well as inputs from the business sector into European universities.
No rapid returns
But companies that expect rapid returns from hosting a PhD student may be disappointed, according to Lidia Borrell Damian, who leads the European University Association’s work on doctoral education and industry-academic links. “If a company has a one- or two-year perspective, then they may find it very difficult to work with universities,” she says. “If they have a four- or five-year perspective, and at least some strategic thinking, then that opens an opportunity, especially for doctoral education.”
Care will also be needed in giving the industrial PhD a European dimension, a pre-condition for receiving EU funds. The most likely approach, and the one supported by Business Europe, would be to insist that the university and the company involved come from different countries. Borrell Damian thinks this would work in principle, but may not be straightforward. “It is very difficult for some companies to accept people from other countries,” she says. “It’s not impossible; it’s just difficult.”
Meeting more demands
Experience with national schemes suggests industrial PhD students find themselves under more strain than those who work only in academia. “Out of the same set of outcomes, they often have to draft two different reports, one meeting academic standards and one meeting company needs,” Borrell Damian explains. “They constantly have to exercise a proper balance of academic content and practical content for industry, so they already have an extra pressure. So we have to be careful adding the additional pressure of an international environment.”
A final challenge will be to ensure that a European scheme is balanced between the north, which is already comfortable with industrial PhDs, and the south, where the idea has not taken root. “Politicians should think about what they want to get out of this scheme,” Borrell Damian concludes. “Is it just to reinforce what already exists in the Nordic countries, or do they want to encourage countries that are not as well developed to raise their level?”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.