Roles of Academia vs Industry

Academia and industry play vital roles in advancing standards of living. What are their respective responsibilities/contributions, and how do they overlap and interact?


From Economics for the Common Good, an academic/researcher contributes the following to society:

  • Create knowledge; define the truth

The duty of an academic is to advance knowledge. In many cases (mathematics, particle physics, the origins of the universe) perhaps we should not be too preoccupied with the application of knowledge, but only with finding the truth – applications will come later, often in unexpected ways. Research driven only by the thirst for knowledge, no matter how abstract it may be, is indispensable – even in the disciplines that are naturally closest to real-world applications. But academics must also collectively aim to make the world a better place …

In the cutting edge of the field, there’s a lack of consensus in this knowledge/truth, and that’s ok:

… these labels cause economics to run the risk of being perceived as a science with no consensus on key questions, meaning economists’ views can be safely ignored. This overlooks the fact that, although their personal opinions may be different, leading economists agree on many subjects – at the very least on what must not be done, even if they do not agree on what should. This is just as well. If there were no majority opinion, financing research in economics would be hard to justify, despite the colossal importance of economic policies. However, research and professional debate concern questions economists understand less well – this is what is distinctive about research – and that are therefore likely to inspire only limited consensus. And it goes without saying that professional consensus can, and should, develop as the discipline advances.

  • Interact with industry

The relationship between universities and industry is often controversial. … These interactions with the real world, however, are probably one of the best ways for academics to understand the problems facing the economy and society, and to develop and fund relevant, original topics of research that those who stay cloistered in their ivory towers could never imagine.

The economics community can be overly focused on areas of “intensive research” – the kind that refines existing knowledge – while neglecting fundamental topics staring practitioners in the face, because researchers have not done enough extensive or broad-ranging research of the kind that is needed to explore new scientific territories.

Whatever area of economics they pursue, there are two ways in which researchers can influence debate on economic policy and the choices made by businesses (there is no single good model, and we all act in accordance with our own temperament). The first is by getting involved themselves. Some, overflowing with energy, succeed in doing so, but it is rare that a researcher can continue to do extensive research and be very active in public debate at the same time. The second way is indirect: economists employed by international organizations, government ministries, or businesses, read the work of academics and put it to use. Sometimes this work is a technical research article published in a professional journal; sometimes it is a version written for the general public.

  • Offer expert opinions, balancing between summary and detail

Researchers have an obligation to society to take positions on questions on which they have acquired professional competence. For researchers in economics, as in all other disciplines, this is risky. Some fields have been well explored, others less so. Knowledge changes, and what we think is correct today could be reevaluated tomorrow.

Finally, even if there is a professional consensus, it is never total. Ultimately, a researcher in economics can, at most, say that, given the current state of our knowledge, one option is better than another. … Thus academics must maintain a delicate balance between necessary humility and the determination to convince their interlocutors of both the usefulness of the knowledge they have acquired and its limits. This is not always easy, because others will find certainties easier to believe.

The media is not, however, a natural habitat for an academic. The distinctive characteristic of academics, their DNA, is doubt. Their research is sustained by their uncertainty. The propensity for putting forward arguments and counterarguments – as academics systematically do in specialized articles, in a seminar, or in a lecture hall – is not easily tolerated by decision makers, who have to form an opinion rapidly. … But above all, academic reasoning is ill adapted to the format of television or radio debates. Slogans, sound bites, and clichés are easier to put across than a complex argument concerning the multiple effects of a policy; even weak arguments are difficult to refute without engaging in a long explanation. Being effective often means acting like a politician: you offer a simple – or even simplistic – message, and stick to it. Do not misunderstand me: academics should not try to hide behind scientific uncertainty and doubt. As far as possible, they must reach a judgment. To do that, they have to overcome their natural instincts, put things in perspective, and convince themselves that, in these circumstances, some things are more probable than others: “In the present state of our knowledge, my best judgment leads me to recommend …” They have to act like a doctor deciding which treatment is best, even in the face of scientific uncertainty.

… the relationship between the scientific and the political is uncomfortable, even though many politicians show some intellectual curiosity. Academics’ and politicians’ time horizons differ, as do the constraints they face. The researcher’s role is to analyze the world as it is and to propose new ideas, freely, without the constraint of having to produce an immediate result. Politics necessarily lives in the present, always under the pressure of the next election. However, these very different time pressures, in response to very different demands, cannot justify a visceral mistrust of the political class. Academics can help politicians make decisions by providing them with tools for reflection, but cannot take their place.

Though these opinions often fall victim to the bias of the audience:

… the academic with a political message is quickly pigeonholed (“left-wing,” “right-wing,” “Keynesian,” “neo-classical,” “liberal,” “anti-liberal”) and the labels will be used to either support or discredit what he or she says, as if the role of a researcher, in any discipline, was not to create knowledge, disregarding preconceived ideas and labels. The audience all too often forgets the substance of the argument, instead judging the conclusion on the basis of their own political convictions. They will welcome the argument favorably or unfavorably depending on whether the academic seems to be on their side or not. In these circumstances, an academic’s participation in public debate loses much of its social utility. It is already difficult enough to avoid being drawn into politics. For example, when a question is about a technical subject on which the government and the opposition disagree, the academic’s every response will be quickly interpreted as a political position. This can inadvertently drown out the message and prevent it from contributing to an enlightened debate.

These responsibilities are also expressed in the keynote speech of the 2017 Marie Curie Alumni Association AGM.


On the other hand, a practitioner in the industry will:

  • Turn knowledge into useful products and services

From The Role of Business in Society:

This then is the role of business in society: to innovate and deliver products and services, to use resources efficiently so that value is created and to conduct operations so that they are performed profitably and accepted by society.

If companies did not exist and you wanted a means for delivering innovation, you would have to create them. In competitive markets, the ability to innovate—whether in technology, management, products or services—is central to the survival of the company. Innovation involves new sciences and technologies, access to raw materials and, in some cases, finite resources. It may involve new ways of working and patterns of organisation. These are often contentious areas that are within the law but breaking new ground.

  • Contribute to larger social goals via corporate social responsibility and active involvement in society

CSR, including consideration of environmental sustainability, has evolved in recent years as a coherent way of thinking about a company’s impact and interaction with society. It covers subjects that affect all companies, such as employment standards, equal opportunities, diversity and carbon emissions; as well as those that are specific to a particular industry, such as advertising to children, drug pricing, nanotechnology or sustainable use of water. It includes those that may affect only a single business, for example, a specific local environmental or community impact, or the consequences of a particular sourcing or employment policy.

For the CEO and Board the challenge is to have a clear map of their business’s impact on and interactions with society, a way of exploring and agreeing the company’s approach to the challenges these raise, and then a way of ensuring that business operations and performance carry through the direction provided by their leadership. It’s a question of joining up corporate purpose, principles, strategy and governance with daily management practice throughout the organisation, including relations and communications with all the company’s stakeholders. It’s about proactively managing the company’s role in society, rather than having others do it for you.


There’s not a hard line between these roles; universities often have entrepreneurial arms and corporations often have in-house researchers. Interactions between academics and industry professionals are critical to either institution’s success, which often result in aspects of academia being embedded in industry, and vice-versa.