Broad universities favourable for innovation
Broad universities that focus strongly on fundamental research have the best chance of contributing to economic innovations, for example in the life and data sciences. This is the message of Professor Simcha Jong in his inaugural lecture on 14 November.
The Netherlands has a lot of broad research universities that offer arts, science and liberal arts programmes. These universities have an advantage in terms of industrial innovations, says Professor of Science Based Business Simcha Jong, particularly in comparison with such countries as Germany and France, where leading-edge research is often organised in specialist research institutes outside the universities.
‘There's a lot involved in developing high-tech products,' says Jong. 'Take, for example, the development of a new drug. Companies need expertise from biochemistry, biophysics, bioinformatics, bioengineering, etc. And that's just in the discovery phase. In the development phase they need knowledge about project management, ethics, regulations, and much more. Broadly oriented universities have all this knowledge in house, which gives them a big advantage over competitors elsewhere.'
Jong foresees a number of challenges ahead if universities want to benefit from this advantage. The declining support for fundamental research is one of them. Major research funders such as NWO are expending more and more of their limited resources on applied science, or research where the benefits are clear beforehand. Out of a total budget of 800 million euros, NWO spends 550 million on the so-called Top Sectors, areas of research 'where the Dutch business sector and research centres excel worldwide.'
Research where the societal benefit cannot be demonstrated in advance - fundamental research, in other words - is slowly falling from grace. That's unfortunate, according to Jong. 'My research on new industries in high-tech clusters around American universities, like Silicon Valley for instance, shows that it is precisely fundamental research that often results in the most unexpected commercially valuable breakthroughs. That's one reason why it's important to continue to reserve funding for this kind of research.'
Jong believes that it is also the responsibility of government to ensure that scientific research is embedded more widely within government bodies. 'At the moment, science is primarily the remit of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. It would be a good idea if other ministries also used science as an input for their core activities. A subsequent cabinet could probably look more systematically at how knowledge-driven innovation can be applied within Dutch ministries.' That's common practice in other countries: the American Ministry of Health, for example, spends thirty billion dollars a year on research to improve healthcare.
Finally, Jong stresses that universities should remain sanctuaries for experimental research and teaching programmes. There is a danger that a growing number of accreditations and visitations will make scientific research and teaching in the Netherlands more homogeneous. Jong's research shows that innovations and creative activities often emerge from universities that organise their research and teaching programmes more unconventionally.'
Jong has previously carried out research on spin-offs, companies that emerge from universities or other knowledge institutions. He looked specifically at biotechnology companies in the San Fransisco area in the US in the seventies and eighties. He found, surprisingly enough, that the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) generated most biotech companies, and not the famous universities Stanford or Berkeley. Thanks to new research and teaching methods, scientists at UCSF were much more active than their counterparts at other universities in collaborating with scientists from other disciplines.