Universities’ Role in Knowledge Transfer
Remarks by Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of Universities Canada, at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, November 27, 2015
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I’ve been working in this sector for more than 30 years, so I’ve seen a lot of ebb and flow. I’ve spent a lot of my career in conversations with members of the university community, and much of that time talking about the role and importance of research and innovation.
And so it occurs to me that, back then, no one really expected researchers to talk about the impact or value of their research to the wider public.
It’s a completely different story today. Universities and academics alike have embraced the idea that research can and should have social and economic benefits for Canadian society.
These days, the culture has shifted so far that we continually need to make a strong case for fundamental, curiosity-driven research – for the kind of research that Peter Strohscheider, head of Germany’s research granting agency, recently called “the new new” – those surprising insights and scientific breakthroughs that we did not expect, plan for, predict or anticipate.
Recognizing that we need all kinds of research – both “the new new,” and that which yields results and innovation for the benefit of society and the economy, we recently asked Canadians some questions about what they expect from universities when it comes to research.
This may surprise you, but Canadians are actually quite aware – and supportive – of universities’ role in producing research that impacts Canadian society. And they’re equally supportive of discovery research.
In a major nationwide survey of Canadians’ views of universities, carried out by Abacus Data, we found that more than seven out of 10 Canadians believe that performing research that is valuable to society is an important function of universities.
Actually, it’s interesting to note that even more Canadians – 85% — support the statement that “governments should invest in basic research – even if it doesn’t lead to immediate economic results.”
Canadians understand that all kinds of research have value, even if there is no immediate impact.
At this conference, many have spoken about the importance of connecting research with people. As our survey results show, people are ready for that connection. Universities recognize that this interest from the public brings with it important responsibilities.
In fact, as the members of Universities Canada stated recently in a set of commitments to Canadians, universities are committed to putting our best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional or local.
So the question is, how do we do that?
Ten years ago, we used to look at technology and knowledge transfer through the narrow lens of commercialization. At Universities Canada, we were as guilty of this as anyone – aiming to demonstrate universities’ contributions through such simple measures as dollars earned through licensing, or the number of spin-offs from university research.
But commercialization, while important, is only one way to measure what goes on in a complex innovation ecosystem – and arguably, it’s not the most important way.
Universities have a larger role to play than simply producing technologies that can be patented. In fact, universities are moving away from seeing commercialization outputs as the sole metric of university innovation.
There are so many potential outcomes and benefits of university research and innovation that can’t be reduced to licensing revenue. For many universities, counting the number of licences or patents is no longer seen as a useful measure of knowledge transfer.
If we are exploring universities’ contributions to a broader spectrum of innovation, we need to recognize what universities are good at. We have to remember that universities are not businesses.
Our capital is human capital. Universities’ primary method of technology and knowledge transfer is through our graduates, who take their skills and education into the workforce. As we like to say, university graduates are “knowledge transfer on two feet.”
That means that we need to invest in our students, which includes hiring the best professors, lecturers, and researchers to educate them.
It also means that we need to support students in their search for relevant, meaningful work in their field. One way universities are doing this is by providing increasing opportunities for hands-on learning and research experience.
Work-integrated learning helps students develop the crucial workplace skills that will help them succeed at the job search and in their early career. It also allows them to connect with prospective employers while still studying.
Currently, more than three-quarters of large Canadian employers hire co-op students through partnerships with universities, polytechnics, or colleges, and 55% of today’s undergraduate university students benefit from experiential learning as part of their education. These kinds of programs have become extremely popular: participation has risen by 25% in the last seven years.
Not only do co-ops and internships it make it easier to get work after, but students are directly engaged in the knowledge transfer process, bringing their skills and learning from the classroom to benefit the organizations where they have placements.
As pointed out in the last panel, there is also increasing interest in entrepreneurial education driven by students, especially those in the arts.
Knowledge transfer also happens through engagement with local communities. The volunteering, internships and research of students and faculty often have direct beneficial impacts on local community groups, hospitals, and businesses.
In fact, I’d like to share some inspiring words from David Turpin, who was installed just last week as president of the University of Alberta.
In his installation speech, he spoke so eloquently about the role of the university and of university research in society. And I quote:
“No other institution in society has as its ultimate purpose the search for truth and knowledge. No other institution has the freedom to undertake curiosity-driven research, research that may have no apparent utility but from which we know all major social, scientific, and technical innovations flow….”
He pledged to provide leadership in research, teaching, community engagement and service, and to work with municipal partners to “tackle major goals on poverty reduction, homelessness, downtown revitalization, infrastructure renewal, and transportation.”
Increasingly, this is the kind of role that universities are taking on. They recognize that their strengths are truly in their education, research and service mandates – and they are working to ensure that their students, graduates, research and community engagement can make a difference at the local, provincial, or national level.
Before I close, I’d like to come back to the idea of innovation, and the gaps that currently exist.
From the university perspective, one issue of increasing concern is the prioritization of STEM fields, to the exclusion of the social sciences and humanities, when it comes to research, innovation, and experiential learning for students.
Across the globe, we are all caught up in the idea that innovation is primarily about STEM.
But if we are trying to foster innovation that leads to triple bottom line benefits – social, economic and environmental – we need to widen the focus. We need to embrace the arts and humanities. In fact, many are now using the term STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math — to talk about the skills and background that business needs to succeed.
At a recent OECD conference in Singapore, I heard Tyler Cowen, the prolific economist based at George Mason University, express this well. He made the counterintuitive but very compelling case that in our technologically advancing society, it will be arts and humanities skills that are the most valuable to business and to society going forward.
As business and industry become more tech-integrated, the most important skills become the ability to manage people, to motivate and inspire them, to be flexible, and to be able to retrain oneself and others.
He also quoted the late Steve Jobs on the value of the arts, who once said that it was the humanities that taught him why he had to make Apple products beautiful, not just technologically advanced
Clearly, it is increasingly important to understand that successful innovation — innovation that has the power to change individual and social behaviours — will never get off the ground without input from the humanities and social sciences.
The lesson here is that STEM research becomes more relevant, and STEM graduates become stronger, if we integrate social sciences and humanities. Not to make too much of the pun, but if we want to succeed at innovation, we really do need to have “full STEAM ahead”.
There are clear opportunities here to strengthen Canadian innovation, and universities are committed to making that happen.
We need to support and strengthen the student experience. We need to broaden our understanding of what innovation looks like. We need to keep investing in and doing fundamental or discovery research aimed at finding the “new new.” And we need to strengthen our partnerships with the private sector, governments, and community organizations to ensure valuable university research and innovation makes it off campus, and into businesses, communities, and Canadians’ lives.
Tagged: Research and innovation
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