The difference between academic and industrial science

One of my favourite authors on the topic of science is the late John Ziman. Ziman played an important role in popularising science and its role in the technological evolution of societies. We have some of his books on our Mesopartner bookstore (You can also click on the images on the right of the screen) .

In his last book, Real Science, he made an important distinction between science in academia, and science in industry. This is relevant to me because I am assisting universities to conduct more relevant scientific research that will benefit industry. At the same time I am assisting industries to intensify their scientific research.

According to Ziman, academic science works towards the Mertonian norms introduced by Robert K Merton in 1942, also known as CUDOS. Merton advanced our understanding of the ethos of the scientific process. I like Ziman’s (2000) discussion of the Mertonian principles. CUDOS is as an acronym that denotes good academic research and stands for:

  • Communalism – fruits of academic science should be public knowledge (belongs to the whole scientific community), and the communication and dissemination of results are as almost as important as the research itself,
  • Universalism – researchers and scientists relate to each other regardless of the rank and experience of the researcher. The norm of universalism requires that scientific findings are evaluated objectively regardless of the status, race, gender, nationalism or any other irrelevant criteria,
  • Disinterestedness – academic scientists have to be humble and disinterested. Work is done in a neutral, impersonal and is often recorded in the passive voice. It disassociates with the personal or social problems, and focus on advancing knowledge or solving a very specific problem in an almost clinical way.
  • Originality – every scientist is expected to contribute something new to the archive, while building on the knowledge of predecessors. Unfortunately this also sometimes constrains how creative academic research can become. “new” could mean new data, questions, methods and insights.
  • Scepticism – This norm triggers important brakes on scientists, as it involves critical scrutiny, debate, peer review and contradiction before being accepted. It is important as it deepens understanding and knowledge from different research perspectives, and should not seen as being completely negative, rather it should be seen as being necessary.


Industrial science works towards what Ziman (2000:78-79) calls PLACE:

  • Proprietary – the knowledge is not made public (or at least as little as necessary is made public),
  • Local – it is focused on local technical problems rather than on increasing general understanding,
  • Authoritarian – Industrial researchers act within a hierarchy and must work to please senior management, in other words, it is not serendipitous,
  • Commissioned – it is undertaken to achieve practical goals rather than to just improve knowledge, and
  • Expert – industrial researchers are employed as expert problem solvers, rather than for their personal creativity and writing or teaching skills.


Ziman argues that when universities undertake contract research for industry, they somehow cross the boundaries between these two approaches to research. For instance, industry is more interested in solving a specific technological challenge and would prefer that senior researchers work on a problem. In the last 50 years it has increasingly become necessary for universities to raise 3rd stream income, so it a universally accepted practice that universities undertake research for and in cooperation with industry.  However, a university must prioritise the development of interns and junior researchers (and achieve other social goals). Furthermore, industry may not be interested in registering a patent (immediately), otherwise their secrets gets shared with the whole world. Academic researchers on the other hand, are expected to deliver publications when they cannot deliver patents or licenses, thus there is another conflict of their objectives. Perhaps a last comment is that universities are under pressure to solve social problems that are deemed “relevant” by prevailing political pressures, while industry prefer to solve problems that are immediate, relevant and that may even be in contrast with the desires of the prevailing political and social debates. Practically this means that at the moment industry may need to automate to remain competitive, thus incurring job losses, while government and the society may be demanding job creation for people with little or no technical education.


Universities must understand this tension, and must operate within and between different modes of conducting research. Current legislation perhaps assumes one standard approach to university research, that always results in something that can be published and or patented (licensed), and it further assumes that the value (and cost) or research is known at the time of start of the research or after completion. Practical experience indicates that this is not always the case. Sometimes the value of research only becomes apparent when it faces market forces.



ZIMAN, J.M. 2000.  Real Science: what it is, and what it means. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ZIMAN, J.M. 2003.  Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

0 thoughts on “The difference between academic and industrial science”

  1. This evening you recalled me to read this blog. The differentiation between academic and industrial science is relevant:

    I recall my Diploma-Study on Heinrich von Stackelberg about the “Seinsgebundenheit”, “the existential basis of knowledge”. He argued that the personal history and mindset, reflects on the way of doing research and consequently on its results. The concept itself was inspired by the sociologist Karl Mannheim, see Wolff, K. H. (1984), “Karl Mannheim: An intellectual itinerary.” Society 21(3): 71-74.

    At the same time I like to ask you, how to relate the differentiation of Ziman to Action Research:
    Communalism – Well, the action research approach not only that the fruits of academic science belongs to the whole scientific community than to the whole community,
    Universalism – The action researcher should be more biased interested to support change in a less favored community,
    Disinterestedness – for sure, the action scientists should be interested, but also triangulate information.
    Originality – its less about general novelty, that to help understand and change a concrete reality.
    Scepticism – Even as the action researcher bases his research on the knowledge of the local community, he or she should look to different perspectives of the reality.

  2. Thanks for this really valuable post, it has just crystallised my thinking about the need for a new model of science in schools, which I speculatively call CAPO: Collaborative, Authentic, Purposeful, Open-ended
    as opposed to the current model of DUBAI (sorry folks over there)
    Bounded by assessment horizon
    This perhaps bridges some of the gaps between the Mertonian model and the action research model referred to in the previous comment.
    I’m currently working on a project to combine big societal challenges with more purposeful research done by school pupils in collaboration with universities and Industry. In the EU we have 75m + school-age pupils who are the ones who will actually need to deal with current challenges, and who probably also have ideas about how to do that, but no easy way to get them into the public domain. At the same time the majority are disengaged from the science education system by its overall lack of purpose and the inability of politicians to see the risks of failure built into the current system…sorry end of rant!

    1. Dear Peter,
      Thank you for this comment. I like your distinction. Can you elaborate on “bounded by assessment horizon”? I wonder if there are ways to rephrase all the words so that they are not negative or positive, but rather just descriptive. I found that when working with policy makers they are often very cautious when the phrases we use have some value judgement attached.

      Best wishes,


      1. Hi Shawn, thanks, that’s a helpful addition. “Bounded by the assessment horizon” is a long-winded way of saying that exams close off further interest in science areas, especially for those not going into university. So teachers tend to teach to the exam rather than building basic understanding of a topic or subject area.
        Re the wording, I agree DUBAI is rather judgemental so I’ll revisit this:
        Oh dear, that’s SAD! Open to suggestions here, but at least it avoids geographical problems!

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