THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 23, 2011

"I'm probably going to get in trouble for this post because the answer to the title question is yes and no," writes John Steen in the opening to a blog in which he asks, "Do Universities Matter for Innovation?" (http://bit.ly/miGs0a).

Dr Steen's unease may stem from the fact that he is a lecturer in innovation management at the University of Queensland Business School, and as such might be expected to argue strongly in favour of universities' role in stimulating economic activity.

But, throwing professional caution to the wind, he says he has "never been convinced by the simple argument that universities matter because they produce groundbreaking research that can be patented and sold to commercial interests".

Contrary to what many academics believe, he writes, "the evidence shows that this is possibly the least important thing that a university can do for the business community".

Dr Steen points to research carried out by his school in conjunction with Brisbane City Council that aimed to "profile innovation" in the city (http://bit.ly/mrh7UV).

Paul Greenfield, Queensland's vice-chancellor, described the research as "an opportunity for the university to demonstrate its capacity to contribute to private-sector innovation". However, Dr Steen writes: "The notion of universities being originators of intellectual property that gets protected and sold to willing buyers doesn't stand up to the evidence."

To back up his argument, he cites a 2006 paper, UK plc: Just How Innovative Are We?, by Andy Cosh and Alan Hughes of the University of Cambridge's Centre for Business Research and Richard Lester of the Industrial Performance Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr Steen concludes from the paper that formal business links with universities have only limited commercial potential (http://bit.ly/lrB5JB).

"When firms were asked about valuable sources of ideas for innovation, universities appeared down the bottom of the list," he writes.

"If you really think about the companies that you regularly interact with, how many would be directly involved in university research? The fact that universities aren't important for innovation in the majority of firms really isn't that surprising."

However, he does not write off higher education's role in stimulating economic activity altogether. Instead, he argues that it is the informal process of academics, graduates and students rubbing up against their counterparts in the business world that makes the biggest contribution.

"This is important because many universities are restricting the flows of knowledge that really matter for innovation," Dr Steen writes.

"Business engagement is rarely recognised in an academic's performance review, lip service is paid to teaching quality and lawyers are always ready to make sure that anything of remote commercial value is protected with a patent or a secrecy agreement."

He adds: "Universities do matter for innovation, but this is because they can create a public space for the exchange of ideas."

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