Innovation is in the air - and everywhere else, too

January 1, 1990

Jean-Lou Chameau on the essential ecology of science and technology universities

As in previous years, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014 will be noted and celebrated – or criticised. Among the plethora of academic rankings, THE’s have gained significant respect and (whether we agree with them or not) influence.

Until recently, I spent my entire academic career in the US, including leadership positions as dean of engineering and then provost of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and then president of the California Institute of Technology. In the summer I left Caltech, a well-established and prestigious institution, to assume the presidency of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a “start-up” in Saudi Arabia.

Because of my background, THE invited me to reflect on my experience at leading universities with a focus on science and technology.

Such universities historically have played an integral role in the innovation, economic development and prosperity of a region or country. In the latter part of the 19th century and with the emergence of mechanised agriculture, transport and industry, such institutions were founded with the explicit intent to enable and drive economic development. Georgia Tech, for example, was established in 1885 to foster manufacturing, specifically the textile industry.

Over time, the landscape for science and technology universities has evolved into an innovation ecosystem in which the institutions not only support industry and educate a highly qualified workforce, but also lead innovation and create new industries themselves. Silicon Valley, with the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University acting as its innovation engines, remains the leading model of such endeavours. There are other examples, at different scales and in diverse national contexts, all founded with high expectations for long-term technological and economic development. Not all of them will become Silicon Valley, however.

One can argue that any science and technology programme makes positive contributions. The simple fact that its graduates readily find employment, even in difficult economic times, speaks to that argument. However, the degree of institutional effectiveness and impact on the innovation and prosperity of a region vary significantly. Why? There are scholars who dedicate their entire careers to answering such questions, but I will suggest some reasons here.

Success is highly dependent on the educational ecosystem. California’s innovation is not built on a few elite academic programmes alone, but on a network of institutions, both private and public – from major research universities to community colleges and vocational training programmes – that provide the education and manpower necessary to fuel the state’s knowledge- and innovation-driven economy. THE’s rankings spotlight the elite’s success; however, it should be noted that their impact is enabled by a complex system of institutions.

A key element for success is a relentless commitment to excellence in education and research. This implies encouraging and enabling highly talented people to address important questions with passion. In this regard, Caltech is an exemplar: spend one day on the Caltech campus visiting laboratories and meeting faculty and students, and you will feel this unusual drive to make a difference. There is something in the air there that is difficult to explain.

Another ingredient is having the discipline to focus. In an era of increasingly complex and expensive research facilities, intense competition and limited resources, most science and technology research programmes cannot be the best, or even good, at everything. Focus also speaks to the need for partnerships and the development of cross-disciplinary teams with talent and special skills within a global research network. The world’s best programmes will seek partners, including institutions that may be competitors in other fields.

A thriving science and technology university supports exploration and innovation: the former encompasses both curiosity- and problem-driven research; the latter translates this into products, technologies and processes. Curiosity-driven research does not provide instant gratification (by this, I mean the shorter-term returns on investment often expected by investors or the taxpaying public). It is risky and often long term, but it is also the source of most great discoveries with the potential to spur dramatic technological advances.

The culture supporting technology (and knowledge) transfer from the university to the innovation ecosystem is also critical to success. Even in the US, few get it right. The infrastructure for technology transfer is one necessary aspect, but it is not sufficient.

At Caltech and Georgia Tech, there is synergy between the drive for discovery and the desire to address societal problems. This is hard to prescribe as the former may be inherent in the people you recruit. However, it is fuelled by a world-class collaborative research environment combined with an agile operational structure that welcomes interaction with diverse stakeholders in the economic arena. Under these conditions, success breeds success, reinforcing the culture.

I began by saying that investment in any science and technology programme will likely have positive effects. Most of us will agree that the most significant contribution will result from the superior education of students – the young engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs we need in our communities. Great programmes place students in a creative environment where they learn not only to analyse and solve difficult questions, but also to tune their analytical skills by synthesis and understanding of the broader context in which societal problems exist. The best also place their students in a diverse, international and entrepreneurial community.

Students in leading science and technology institutions receive a high-quality education that confers privileges and, if we do our jobs well, the appreciation that these privileges come with the duty to contribute to the betterment of society. A thriving innovation ecosystem not only shapes their education, but also makes it easier for them to give back to society.

As I reflect on my experiences, I realise that the character of the best science and technology institutions formed the basis of my decision to join KAUST. The university was established to promote social prosperity and economic development, not only for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but also for the world. As a completely new institution, it is unencumbered by academic history and is able to focus on interdisciplinary areas of research that are critical to the world, including food, water, energy and the environment.

KAUST is providing flexible and sustained resources to its academics and students to ensure that they can focus their energy and passion on important questions, both curiosity- and problem-driven. From day one, it positioned itself as a collaborative, diverse and international campus with partners from all over the world. Furthermore, the work of the faculty is enabled by first-class facilities and a supportive infrastructure, as well as a technology transfer programme and a technology park.

While KAUST’s commitment to sustained research support and infrastructure provides the context for a new centre of discovery and innovation, its culture will be the foundation of its success. A brand-new institution can select from among the world’s best practices and experiment in areas that may be difficult, or even impossible, to consider in established ones: from having a faculty development and promotion process without tenure, to providing a holistic community environment with all the social amenities and services that scholars, students and staff need for their families within walking distance of the campus’ core. KAUST is recruiting exceptional faculty, staff and administrators committed to developing a culture of excellence and innovation, not only in research and education but also in the way its employees work and live.

Having led one of the world’s leading science and technology institutions and contributed to the ascendancy of another, I appreciate the challenges we all face in our mission to create a more prosperous society. Benchmarks such as the THE World University Rankings provide an opportunity for reflection on the status of our respective institutions, and also provide a glimpse into the evolution of the world’s innovation ecosystem.

Jean-Lou Chameau is president, KAUST, and president emeritus, Caltech.


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