Universities should encourage their academics to patent rather than publish their research so that it has the greatest impact on society, according to a university vice-president.
Paul Feigin, vice-president for strategic projects at Technion Israel Institute of Technology, said that, while the “traditional model of disseminating knowledge is by publishing papers”, investors were not interested in innovations that were already in the public domain and that higher education institutions must instead “set up facilities on campus to encourage faculty to commercialise their research”.
He was speaking as part of a panel on the topic of models of strategic leadership and turning ideas into impact at the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit, held at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“You will have a certain resistance to overcome,” said Professor Feigin. “How do you convince faculty that if you really want to disseminate the knowledge in a way that will be useful to society then you should patent it? Because if you don’t patent it nobody will invest in it to make it into a product and all the knowledge you have created doesn’t get access to the market.”
He added: “One thinks if you publish it everyone can use it. If you publish it nobody wants to use it because they want to invest in it, so you need to go through a process of convincing your faculty that there is another way to disseminate their knowledge and drive innovation.”
However, Professor Feigin cautioned that, when universities try to measure innovation and work with industry, they have to be “a little bit wary” that they do not “turn the university into an organisation that provides services to industry and that’s our contribution to innovation”.
“We have to allow blue sky research. This aspect of higher education is the innovation of the next 15 to 20 years,” he said.
A separate panel on how universities can innovate to address grand challenges explored the importance of interdisciplinary research.
Anna Mauranen, vice-rector of the University of Helsinki, said many of the world’s greatest challenges are “largely social science problems”.
“Technology challenges are hard to meet without the human aspect,” she said. “A number of international companies like to hire people from the humanities and social sciences because they understand why humans make choices [and] what makes them happy and unhappy.”
However, Peter Mathieson, president of the University of Hong Kong, said that interdisciplinary work “doesn’t just happen on its own” and explained how his institution has “engineered” this approach to research through a “radical reform” of funding.
The Hong Kong government allocates funding to universities based on their undergraduate student programmes, and previously HKU would give this out to the relevant departments, Professor Mathieson said. But the idea of faculties sharing this funding with any other part of the university was considered "heresy”, he added.
Now the university keeps a proportion of that funding centrally and allocates it back to departments, favouring interdisciplinary projects within and across departments and also with other institutions.
“That’s been very successful,” he said. “Researchers and academics are very good at playing the game. If you produce new rules, they adapt very quickly.”
Professor Mathieson also spoke about the need for universities to “involve students” in designing curricula and in decisions around the delivery of teaching, as they have “grown up with digital technologies”.
However, he said that encouraging an “entrepreneurial spirit” in students is difficult, particularly in Asia.
“In this part of the world, telling students that it’s OK to fail is challenging. Our students are not programmed for failure. Our students are programmed for success,” he said.