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Academics and heads of R & D stress the key role of the university as a driver of innovation, but agree that more progress is needed in knowledge transfer

Experts, businesses and policy makers are calling for a change of model to make universities more competitive and innovative, and to help them respond more effectively to the needs of society. These are some of the conclusions of the Symposium on Universities, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, organized by the Barcelona Institute of Economics, which brought together experts, public administrators and entrepreneurs to discuss ways of improving university-business cooperation. Academics and representatives of the main public universities in Catalonia and the business world agreed that Catalan and Spanish universities have made huge leaps forward in the area of research in the last 25 years, but acknowledged that the great challenge facing the university system is how to increase the transfer of knowledge to the rest of society. This point was made by Didac Ramírez, rector of the UB and chair of the ACUP (the Association of Catalan Public Universities), and by Jordi Marquet, director of the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Research Park, at the Symposium on Universities, Innovation and Territory organized by the Barcelona Institute of Economics. During the inauguration of the event, the rector of the UB stressed that Spain is ranked fifteenth in the world in scientific output, but only twentieth in knowledge transfer, and appealed to companies and universities to work together to promote innovation. Jordi Marquet agreed that "there is an imbalance between the level of university research and innovation" and noted that "promoting the transfer of knowledge to society is the great challenge for the coming years."

Changing the university model
Participants at the symposium agreed on the need for a new university model to improve university-industry cooperation. From the academic world, Francesc Solé Parellada, professor in business management, director of the Innova programme at the UPC and vice-president of the CYD Foundation, called for a model of university management that conceives the institution as a "knowledge enterprise" and boosts its third mission, that is, its commitment to society at large. Solé Parellada proposed a "change in the organizational design, incentives and strategy, focusing more on the needs of society." He commended the "giant leap" that Spanish university research has made since 1980, but also mentioned the major hurdles facing the attempts to establish a university with both a business spirit and a strong social commitment. "In Spain”, he lamented, “neither the legislation nor the funding is designed to create entrepreneurial universities" and called for "a culture change with regard to the university’s third mission" so as to promote innovation.

The president of the IEB Foundation, Joaquim Coello, also called for more autonomy and competition in a university model "that responds to the needs of society with results, which permanently adapts to change, promotes entrepreneurship, reacts to market changes and pursues excellence in specialized areas".

From the perspective of the government, the director general for research of the Generalitat, Josep M. Martorell, stated the government’s objectives for the coming years: first, to implement a new university model, and second, to maintain leadership in the field of research, despite the fact that there will be no budget increases over the next four years. The new model, said Martorell, would increase fees and make university access more equitable; it would reduce the master’s courses on offer by 30% in two years, encourage  the sharing of services (especially in technology), promote the university as a driver of innovation, and progress towards a new governance model. For his part, the general manager of university policy at the Spanish Ministry of Education, Juan José Moreno, called for a move towards specialization in Spanish universities and for greater university involvement in regional development.

From the standpoint of the business world, Fernando Rayón, head of innovation at Agbar, Barcelona’s water company, joined the call for greater incentives to promote knowledge transfer from the academic to the business world. Antoni Esteve, president of Laboratorios Esteve, was critical of the current situation; he expressed his regret that companies spend little on R & D and that governments lack the vision to design projects that are exciting to society and increase competitiveness in the knowledge industry. Esteve expressed the concern of the Catalan business sector that the region may be losing competitiveness.

Adam B. Jaffe, expert in innovation, backs the introduction of stronger incentives
The keynote address was delivered by Professor Adam B. Jaffe (University of Brandeis, USA), an internationally recognized expert in the study of knowledge transfer and innovation. Professor Jaffe said that "the incentives for researchers and universities to find commercial applications are key to improving the contribution of university research to society". He also recalled that, with this incentive system, there were more than 3,500 startups in the US in 2009 based on technology developed at the university; private companies in the US invested over 54 bn dollars in university research, and income from patents from university centres amounted to 2.3 bn dollars (compared with 2.6 million euros in Spain).

But beyond the technological advances and patents, Jaffe also recalled that the major contribution of universities to society is to train highly qualified future workers, and recalled that "a country that does not have an educated workforce cannot thrive". He also warned that cuts in research budgets at the university or the company may make it difficult for certain sectors to find ways out of the crisis.

The Symposium on Universities, Innovation and Territory, recently held at La Pedrera in Barcelona, was a two-day meeting at which experts in innovation, entrepreneurs and policy makers debated ways to promote the role of universities to innovation and development. The symposium, organized by the Barcelona Economics Institute at the UB, was supported by the ACUP (the Association of Catalan Public Universities) and the CYD, the Foundation for Knowledge and Development.