Add Socrates to science park

February 14, 2003

Humanities departments have much to offer business, say Maurice Biriotti and Henrietta Moore

The government wants a new deal between business and the academy. The Lambert review, it is hoped, will tell us how it is to be done. After student finance, knowledge transfer is the hottest topic on the policy agenda. The only problem is that there's no clear answer to the question "what makes a university good at knowledge transfer?" The reason is that both business and universities are looking in the wrong place. The idea that university science departments will develop the technologies of the future, and reap the rewards for all, is too shortsighted and narrow.

The results of technology and product transfer to date have been patchy and unconvincing. Even the most innovative of our institutions have failed to make significant inroads into new ways of leveraging the relationship, with leaders such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology securing barely more than 1 per cent of total turnover from commercial exploitation of its innovation assets. Contrary to the enthusiasm generated by policy-makers, the effort of spinning off businesses to exploit new products commercially often proves greater than the rewards. The step-change needed in the relationship between the universities and the world of commerce has so far proved elusive.

Does this mean that the universities' attempt to forge a new link with business is flawed? Not at all, but the answer lies in rethinking the approach. Current thinking focuses on the creation of products. These are notoriously difficult to develop, to protect, to take to market and to exploit effectively.

Mortgaging the future of our academic institutions not only on the basis of potential product innovation, but on the universities' ability to get the commercial exploitation right is not a sound proposition for intellectual development or wealth creation.

The strength of universities is not about the products but the processes they engage in. The preservation of academic rigour is predicated on a combination of learning, methodological know-how and the checks and balances created by the unique research environment of the institutions themselves. And these processes have the ability to generate the thing that businesses are really crying out for: the application of thinking to the problems they face.

Within that context, there are surprising conclusions. We have all imagined that the relationship between business and academe would fundamentally benefit the sciences. But if one asks the average CEO what keeps him awake at night, the answer is as likely to involve "people" as it is technologies. Understanding consumers, business cultures, global trends, the nature of creativity and the values of a brand: these are major issues for our corporations. Getting to grips with them should involve harnessing the social sciences and humanities.

The processes involved in anthropological investigation, historical analysis or Socratic contestation have more to add to business than we might imagine. It is a question of educating businesses to understand the benefits and preparing our university departments to reap the rewards.

This will not mean universities turning themselves into consultancy firms, any more than the right path is about turning universities into entrepreneurs. It is about universities being universities, and learning to offer the independence, objectivity and intellectual creativity that academic processes can generate to a business audience in an entirely new relationship. In short, the solution lies not so much in developing products as in transferring modes of thought, practical ways of thinking about difficult problems. If the future is about using intellectual processes in new ways to generate wealth for all parties concerned - a genuine knowledge economy - then it is to the social sciences and humanities, as well as the sciences, that government and business should turn.

Maurice Biriotti is CEO of SHM Productions Ltd, a knowledge-transfer company, and Henrietta Moore is deputy director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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