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Finding the best way to turn high-quality academic research into economic success is a question that vexes policymakers the world over.
But nations where innovation is being driven by private firms are making the most progress in this area, and universities should not necessarily be blamed if a country is lagging behind.
Those are among the conclusions that could be drawn from an analysis of statistics on the rate at which academic research was cited by patents between 2008 and 2014.
Times Higher Education used Elsevier's SciVal tool to look at the number of patent citations that referenced scholarship from a particular country over the period compared with the global trend.
Because patent data have a lag of several years it is not possible to view trends much beyond 2014, but even by that year South Korea had matched Germany with a patent citation rate per 1,000 papers of more than one-and-a-half times the world average, while Singapore pulled ahead of Switzerland over the period.
Meanwhile, the UK still lagged behind the world’s most innovative economies such as the US, Netherlands and Switzerland, although it had improved and was above countries with similar higher education systems, such as Australia.
Richard Jones, professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and chair of the technical advisory group for England’s knowledge exchange framework, said that the country comparison suggested that it was unfair to focus on universities for shortfalls in knowledge transfer.
“The question is: where does the demand for innovation come from? Where are the companies that are doing the kind of applied research that needs basic research to underpin it?” he said.
Although in many ways South Korea had a very “directed system” where major companies like Samsung had an influence on academic research, that may be more effective for knowledge transfer than in nations such as the UK, where private demand for innovation may be lacking.
Apart from the pharmaceutical industry – which Professor Jones said had itself been struggling in recent years in bringing new products to market – “we don’t really have any other really strong sectors that are providing the demand for innovation. So I don’t think it is fair to blame the universities, they have been quite effective at knowledge transfer.”
He added that another successful approach, deployed in the US in particular, was to grow small university spin-off firms into huge companies that then fuelled innovation, but again the UK had struggled to follow this route.
“We don’t have enough big companies doing R&D on a large scale and we’re not growing small companies to a big scale,” Professor Jones said.
Meanwhile, he thought that China – although below the world average patent citation rate – would likely continue to improve thanks to having “very innovative companies” and a university sector that had “grown by leaps and bounds”.
However, one tempering factor to this could be trade.
“Anything that restricts trade will dampen innovation. One of the lessons of [South] Korea is that it has [become]…a leading-edge innovative country by being fiercely competitive and…making exports competitive with Western products. So, in general, if markets close that would be a danger [to a country’s progress].”