Wealth marks the modern academic


26-09-2001

You need to be a millionaire to have made it as an academic these days.

This startling view comes from Prof Alan Windle, the head of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), who says this is what he has heard said within Cambridge University.



'It's no longer the be all and end all to be brilliant,' says Prof Windle, adding that this is a major change from a decade ago, when academics making money was almost frowned upon.



'The big difference now is that Cambridge is coming round to applaud commercial success.'



This is nowhere more evident than in the formation of CMI a year ago, its primary aim to get UK universities thinking along the same commercial lines as their US counterparts.



That the alliance should be headed up by Cambridge and MIT is intriguing: 'It wouldn't have been so valuable if it had been an Ivy League university in the US, the value is because we are so different.'



MIT is a private university and automatically tends to think along more commercial lines, but Cambridge, according to Prof Windle, has come right round to the idea that making money is the goal.



'We want to encourage young people to take risks and set up in business when they leave university. What's needed now is a commercial edge.'



Prof Windle says projects CMI is supporting are often high risk, at the very forefront of science and technology, for instance, using a bug to make a new antibiotic, developing ultra-light metal, the ultimate in polymers.



'These are all at the high risk end and if every one succeeds then it could be argued we are not taking enough risks.'



CMI has huge funding -- more than 65 million of public funds, plus a further 15 million to be raised from industrial sponsors -- available for its range of initiatives.



These include student exchange between the two university, seminars around the country to spread the message to other UK universities, and strong partnerships with industry.



For instance, BT is on side, and wants to get involved in social sciences in a bid to find out how much 'over engineering' of consumer products people will tolerate.



At the same time, Prof Windle says there are many inventions sitting on shelves which could find good commercial uses, if only the right thinking was employed.



As for the Americans, the students who have already spent time studying in Cambridge say: 'Taking a course here is like drinking from a fire hose.'



And as to the rogue Shakespeare story that appeared a fortnight ago in these pages, Prof Windle stands by the bard: 'We fund workshops to bring people together to form joint research teams, to explore whether they want to work together in projects to do with media.



'It just happened to be Shakespeare.'