False barriers are hindering innovative research

Fostering favourable conditions for research and innovation is one of the key things that Europe has to get right – at the institutional level of universities, at government level, and at EU level.

But what do we have to do to ensure that pathways to research are open and supported, so that we get innovative products and services, engaged and dynamic entrepreneurs, and growth and competitiveness on the continent?

I contend that false or artificial barriers and distinctions are preventing us from creating the right pathways and support systems for innovative research.

Unhelpful distinctions are made all the time between: research and education; applied and basic research; commercial disciplines and non-profit making ones; entrepreneurial business people and ivory tower academics; and between public and private organisations.

These distinctions affect our categorising and compartmentalising and rationalising and prioritising: this should be replaced by collaboration, cooperation and interconnection. It’s time to analyse the orthodoxies.

Neither private nor public

There’s an orthodoxy within many European countries, including my own, Ireland, that higher education should be publicly funded and that it’s ‘bad’ to ask students to invest in their own education.

On the other hand, there’s a presumption that it’s private funding and private corporations that produce innovative products and services.

Fortunately, the reality is very far from the orthodoxy. In fact: our universities are not simply public bodies and innovative research does not only result from private funding. The reality is much more interconnected.

How ‘public’ are Europe’s universities? Take my own university, Trinity College, the University of Dublin, as an example. It is publicly funded and legally defined as a ‘public body’. In practice, however, we count on private resources and this is growing all the time.

Half our budget now comes from non-exchequer private sources – these sources include commercial revenue from spin-out companies and industry partnerships, and revenue from research contracts, philanthropy and student fees or ‘student contributions’ as they are known even though they are essentially fees.

Since university education is both a public and a private good, it follows that they should be both publicly and privately funded. Which is, in fact, what’s happening.

The problem in Ireland is that the de facto situation isn’t recognised – legally universities continue to be defined as public bodies and are subject to the full range of public controls and restrictions without recognition of the changes in sources of revenue.

This false position has become problematic. In Ireland the response to the recession was to impose strict budget and employment controls and regulations on the public sector.

Industry partnerships

There were similar reactions to the recession in other EU countries, so much so that the European University Association, or EUA, has created an Autonomy Scorecard which rates countries on the managerial and operative freedom of their universities.

Universities rely on private sources. Trinity, like most European universities, counts on industry partnerships for a whole range of exciting research projects. But let’s not run away with the idea that it’s only the private sector supporting exciting research.

Economists have challenged that orthodoxy. They have pointed out, not only that public money should take risks, but that historically, states have taken risks with public money – and with great success.

In Mariana Mazzucato’s book, The Entrepreneurial State, she sets about debunking the orthodoxy of an entrepreneurial, risk-taking private sector and a cautious, conservative public sector. This, she says, is not how successful economies are actually built.

Mazzucato unpicks the Apple iPhone and shows that all the technologies behind it were originally state-sponsored: the US armed forces pioneered the internet, GPS positioning and voice-activated “virtual assistants”. They also provided much of the early funding for Silicon Valley.

Academic scientists in publicly funded universities and labs developed the touch-screen and the HTML language. And a government body lent Apple half a million dollars before it went public.

Likewise, the research that produced Google’s search algorithm, the fount of its wealth, was financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin had the entrepreneurial genius to harness those technologies into products and services, but US state investments enabled the consumer-electronics revolution.
As for pharmaceutical companies, they are even bigger beneficiaries of state research than internet and electronics firms.

These ideas aren’t that radical once you start thinking about them. Anyone working in a university knows that our research, often funded by government bodies, is used by the private sector.

This shouldn’t matter – because it all results in societal benefit – and it wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the false distinction which downgrades the role of public bodies in the innovation ecosystem.

False dichotomies

Let’s try to debunk some other orthodoxies that I find unhelpful, such as frontier research versus applied research.

I understand why there are different funding streams for applied research and frontier research, but we shouldn’t make too much of the differences. Because it’s all research, some of it is more curiosity-driven and risky and will take longer to produce results.

But applied research is built on frontier research, and frontier research is often motivated by problems that arise in applied research – the research behind the iPhone is a case in point.

There’s also the myth of commercial disciplines versus non-profit making ones, which has led to rationalisation – to institutions, regions, even countries, putting all their ‘eggs’ in one discipline.

And there’s the myth of research versus education, as if the two can be separated, as if what and how you educate doesn’t depend on what and how you research, and vice versa. This myth leads to separate policies being formulated for education and research.

On one side, we have these received ideas and orthodoxies: where universities are purely public bodies and where all exciting research and innovation is driven by the private sector.

On the other side, we have the ideal, which is a virtuous circle of public and private investment in higher education; of public and private working together for societal benefit. Somewhere in the middle we have the way things actually work.

Towards integration

For this to happen, we need to clear away the false distinctions and orthodoxies which are resulting in poor policies – in European universities being highly regulated and subject to public sector controls, and in decisions on how to educate our young people being taken in isolation to decisions on how to fund our research.

I am hopeful that we will get this right. Recent policy in the most important EU funding streams, in the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, or EIT, and Horizon 2020, is against categorising and compartmentalising and towards integration and coordination between the sectors of higher education, business and research and technology.

Ireland is a case in point. This year we achieved remarkable success with the European Research Council, or ERC. Our success rate jumped from second-lowest ERC performer to second-highest in the Starting Grant call. Only Israel outperformed Ireland in terms of ERC success rate in this call.

Our ERC success rate in the Consolidator Grants programme also saw a significant increase to above average. And this happened during the recession, in a period of severe cutbacks.

Ireland performed below the European average for FP7 – the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development which ended in 2013 – but these promising first results show that this trend is set to change for Horizon 2020.

Success with the ERC came about because universities and public bodies adopted a partnership approach. In pursuit of the goal of ERC funding, all partners – the government funding bodies, the universities and industry – worked cohesively together, sharing knowledge and pooling expertise.

This is just one area. It doesn’t mean we’ve cracked the solution. But it’s a good indicator and a good start. It helps to focus on a common goal.

We all want the same thing – a higher education system which delivers excellent research and excellent graduates and which contributes to growth and competitiveness across the European Research Area.

Dr Patrick Prendergast is president of Trinity College Dublin and a board member of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, or EIT. He spoke at the recent European University Association conference entitled “European Universities in Research and Innovation: People, policies and partnerships”, held at the University of Antwerp, Belgium from 16-17 April 2015.