Previous research on academic entrepreneurship and engagement with industry has found that the behaviour of academics is influenced by their local social context. However, we know little about the mechanisms that produce this effect. We argue that academic scientists’ industry engagement is influenced significantly by the behaviour of their peers, that is, the behaviour of colleagues of similar seniority. Using insights from social psychology, we hypothesize that these peer effects are produced by the mechanism of social comparison. In an analysis of data from multiple sources for 1370 UK academic scientists and engineers, we find that peer effects are stronger for early career individuals and weaker for star scientists, suggesting the incidence of social comparison. We argue that individuals look to their immediate peers for inspiration, because they view them as an important reference group and use them as a benchmark for their own ambitions and behaviours. Our findings have important implications for how universities may encourage scientists’ behaviours by paying attention to local work contexts.