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Study Examines the Impact of National Polices on University Innovation

June 05, 2014

This is part one of a two part series on the effects of policy dynamics on university innovation and focuses on national polices from developed countries; part two will focus on state policies.

Since the end of World War II, national policymakers have seen the importance of supporting university-led innovation. Driven by the contributions of academic research to military innovation and technology, national policies focused on a linear, science-push model – a model focused on national governments investing significantly in university research including basic and applied research and the development of new technologies and other innovations. In return, industry and the national economy would benefit via the formation of wealth through tech transfer, health and national security.

In recent years, however, many nations have started to shift their policies from the linear, science-push model. Instead, they are focusing on policies that support an interactive, reciprocal process of knowledge transfer between industry and university. This model focuses on creating linkage via the creation of research parks, industry-university research ventures and similar strategies.  It allows for industry and universities to interact in a way that is more conducive to the innovation process due to the two-way follow of information and collaboration.

As these new national polices mature, academic researchers are starting to examine the effectiveness of university-focused policies on spurring innovation and their impact economic development. In the recently released study, The Contribution of Universities to Innovation: Insights from a Comparative Study of the Leading OECD Nations, the authors examine the contribution of universities to innovation and the impacts of recently adopted national innovation polices on universities.  The authors divided these polices into three areas: research, doctoral training, and knowledge transfer in several of the most successful Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries including the United States.

The comparative study found that recent strategies to support reciprocal process of knowledge transfer have seen more academic research productivity as measured by increased output of publications and doctoral graduates. The study indicates that several European Union members, including Finland and the Netherlands, have established polices that permit publically funded universities control over the design and development oftheir Ph.D. programs. These initiatives may ultimately be a better method than the traditional national standard models.

The study also found that a strong emphasis on support for applied research and performance-based funding have resulted inadequate support for basic research in key areas such as chemistry, physics and mathematics.  The study highlights recent shifts in the United Kingdom and United States as examples of this programmatic shift, which may have long-term consequences on competitiveness. The authors contend without the strong base of basic research, an emphasis on applied research will be less fruitful.

Finally, the study found that national policies focused on knowledge transfer are becoming widely accepted and valued as an element of the general mission at most universities. Although they were initially faced with push-back, many universities have focused on becoming more entrepreneurial and utilitarian. They view themselves as partners with industry and key components of regional-industry clusters. This shift has led to increases in knowledge transfer activates indicated by numbers of patents, licenses and industrial startups across OECD countries. 

The focus on creating entrepreneurial universities, however, has led to the unintended consequence of decreasing availability of freely available theoretical results and research tools. Driven by the financial incentives for universities to patent and license their discoveries, many of the top research universities are restricting access to tools and methods that in the past would have been open source for other scholars and researcher. This lack of spillover may reduce the long-term economic benefits that have been long considered the rational of public support for academic research.

In order to contribute to the social and economic development of a country, David Dill and Frans van Vught recommend that universities must continue to become more entrepreneurial and nimble due to an era of heightened global academic competition. The authors argue that one-size-fits-all-strategies are ineffective because it steers individual universities away from knowledge transfer that fosters regional economic development. Instead national policies must be flexible and provide publically-funded universities with autonomy to address new and rapidly transforming social and economic challenges.

Universities also play a crucial role in the creation of creative hotspots by providing public space through meetings, research conferences and industrial liaison programs.  By establishing these programs, they can help bring together regional innovation assets together to discuss and build plans for strategic regional development. Read the study…

higher ed, r&d