Focus on local innovation is misguided, journal claims

Drive for industrial relevance may harm long-term research, say academics. Hannah Fearn reports

August 7, 2008

The potential for universities to become regional hubs of innovation and boost the local economy has been overstated, and policymakers are too focused on the exploitation of new technology at the expense of the wider exchange of knowledge.

That is the message from a collection of articles in a special edition of the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, looking at innovation in higher education.

Launching the edition (volume 1, issue 2, July 2008), co-editor Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford, said policymakers' focus on positioning universities as local centres for innovation was misguided. "Universities are very different, and the regions they operate in are very different. We can't all be MITs, and we can't all be based in Silicon Valley - so we shouldn't all behave like we're based there."

He added: "We need to make sure that industrial relevance doesn't lead to short-term pressures on universities at the expense of long-term research. Probably the biggest impact that universities have in the real world is through the students they teach."

In their introduction, the journal editors - Susan Christopherson, Michael Kitson and Professor Michie - say: "There is an increasing focus on the role of networks and knowledge exchange in the innovation process. Yet the policy discourse is often narrowly focused on areas such as technology transfer and fails to capture the importance of variety, complexity and the role of place."

The paper "Models for university technology transfer", lead authored by Anthony Warren, of Pennsylvania State University, says: "Political exigencies often demand that universities must claim to play a role in local economic development, a task that may not be the most effective use of resources and intellectual property. We recommend they reject the one-size-fits-all approach to technology commercialisation."

Another paper, led by Rob Huggins of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, says: "The onus placed on universities to become bases of commercialisable knowledge in many regions is probably too heavy."

At the launch, Mike Hield, chief executive of InnovationXchange, which partners universities with business, said: "Innovation, particularly in the commercial world, is not for itself. It has to be a way of putting clear water between one organisation and another. Bright ideas are ten a penny, they only become innovation when they affect the bottom right-hand corner of a profit-and-loss account."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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