The Danish Research Policy Council organized two days ago a national conference on how Danish universities can create value for society and the economy. With more than 200 key stakeholders of the national research world gathering in central Copenhagen, the conference constituted an important meeting point amid current discussions about the role of universities. These discussions follow on from the recent university law reform in early 2011, and in light of the new coalition government that took power in early October this year.
In particular, the conference focused on three themes: public-private collaboration on research and innovation; the public sector as an engine for innovation; and research leadership in universities.
Many good points were raised and discussed extensively during the conference. In view of shortage of space and time, let me just present my personal take on things.
Value-creation in a wider sense
In spite of the extensive debate over the past two decades regarding the role of universities, too much attention is still being paid to the ‘input’ side of universities’ research activities (amount of external funds raised, number of PhDs enrolled, scientific personnel/student ratios, etc.), and too little on the ‘output’ side (publication ratios, citation impact, numbers of patents and licences). The conference reached a general consensus that this narrow perspective needs to be readdressed, because universities’ research generate value in a much wider sense. Universities’ broader research outcomes include non-commercial solutions to convoluted socio-technical problems, efficiency improvement of processes in manufacturing and service sectors, and sophisticated models that facilitate forecasting or help seing old issues under a new prism. This wider understanding of the value-creation of research requires a substantial emphasis on universities’ dissemination and outreach activities, which requires improved professionalization of personnel dedicated to these particular activities. Furthermore, this wider value-creation needs to be reflected the way in which universities organize themselves. The new Minister of Education promised that Danish universities will be given greater autonomy to organize themselves according to their own needs. However, he added, there will be an increased focus on the quality of their outputs, particularly in terms of their contribution to a wider value-creation.
Universities stimulating innovation in the public sector
The public sector constitutes around 50% of the Danish economy. For this reason, the role of university research in improving and stimulating innovation in the public sector is crucial. The Danish public sector is very dynamic and flexible, with substantial effort dedicated to development activities. However, with the exception of the health sector, these development activities very rarely consider the research carried out at universities. Hence, a number of bridges need to be built to bring these two worlds together. Firstly, both universities and the public sector need to become more visible to each other. This can be achieved via effective and specifically designed information channels (web portals, dissemination activities, etc.), or through ‘science speed-dating’ between public sector organizations and university research teams. Secondly, there are a number of motivational factors to be addressed. Many researchers have a genuine interest in making a difference to the society above and beyond publishing in scientific journals, and this genuine interest can be a driving force to identify research problems that address real-life public sector problems. Finally, it may be wise to consider the possibility of concrete economic incentives, either in the criteria of conventional public research funding to include public sector organizations, or in the creation of a specific-purpose funding mechanism for public sector-related research.
The challenges for university research leadership
When asked which leadership level within a university is responsible for the production of good research, the audience overwhelmingly pointed to the level of research groups; the lowest level of leadership possible within a university. It is interesting to note that respondents did not point to the Deans’ offices, or even Heads of Department, but instead looked to the day-to-day research leaders with direct hands on research teams. This calls for serious consideration of the importance of allowing excellent university leaders to continue to perform well in research and education tasks (rather than forcing them into administrative tasks). This can only happen if universities offer these research leaders the necessary quantity and quality of administrative support that allows them to remain focused on the actual research and teaching. Moreover, it is important that the leadership competences of research leaders are constantly improved through targeted leadership development programs.
The conference brought about a lot of food for thought for the future development of universities in Denmark, and especially for the new government.