Public sector research - key actors - Public research institutes



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What are the main activities and interests of PRIs?

Public research institutes (PRIs) come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with different main missions. Their relative importance in innovation systems varies from one country to the next, as measured by their levels of R&D expenditure. Some are national laboratories that undertake large-scale basic and applied R&D that most research universities would be unable to carry-out. Others are owned and sometimes operated by individual policy-making organisations to undertake research in specific topics or sectors in support of policy-making. Still others are dedicated to the development and diffusion of science and technology to the industrial sector. This diversity reflects the often critical roles PRIs play in innovation systems, but has also hindered the study of them as a group; for example, they are far less researched and understood than research universities.


How do the main activities and interests of PRIs coincide with public sector research contributing to innovation performance?

Reflecting their diversity, PRIs undertake the full range of activities in support of innovation. For example, those that carry out basic research are often leading contributors to the scientific record while those focused on supporting firms’ innovation efforts will most likely be active in technological development and in providing advice, consulting and extension services. This points to some degree of specialisation among PRIs, but recent years have tended to witness diversification in their activities as they have come under increasing policy pressure to expand their missions. As a consequence, it is not unusual for an individual PRI to undertake most, if not all, of the activities associated with public sector research contributing to innovation. This has seen PRIs engage increasingly in spin-off activity and patenting and licensing through knowledge marketsR&D collaboration with firms and research universities appears also to be on the increase. Sometimes, these activities may be in conflict, given the opportunity costs involved and the different incentive regimes that govern different types of activity. Besides indicators of R&D expenditure and human resources, there are few internationally comparable measurements of the levels of these different activities in PRIs across countries.


What resources and capabilities do PRIs need to contribute to innovation performance?

PRIs require significant amounts of funding and infrastructure to carry out their missions. They also require a mix of skills to conduct research and technological development, to engage in commercialisation activities, and to interact with users, funders and collaborators. Some of these activities, such as commercialisation, are often concentrated in specialists units, such as technology transfer offices. At an organisational level, PRIs require the capabilities to respond to user needs, to anticipate future research needs and their consequences, and to strategically position and steer their activities.


What actors are important for PRIs to contribute to innovation performance?

The following actors shape the ways in which PRIs contribute to innovation performance:

  • As providers of discretionary organisational funding and a fair amount of competitive R&D project grants, policy-making and regulatory organisations, to which PRIs are often closely attached, can play a very significant role in shaping the activities undertaken. Indeed, there is often fierce debate on how much autonomy PRIs should be given vis-à-vis their ministry / agency ‘masters’.
  • PRIs more or less depend on different research funding organisations for resources. The priorities of these organisations will naturally shape the sorts of research and other activities PRIs can engage in.
  • Research universities can be useful research collaborators and a source of new human resources for PRIs to employ. In many countries, however, the relationship tends to be more competitive than collaborative, sometimes to the point of being destructive.


What factors are important for PRIs to contribute to innovation performance?

Several factors can influence the contributions PRIs make to innovation:

  • PSR funding regimes determine the balance between discretionary and competitive funding. Both forms of funding are beneficial to PRIs. In particular, discretionary organisational funding is essential for institutes to invest in people (through permanent contracts and lifelong learning) and equipment, allowing them to take a more long-term and strategic perspective on their activities.


What policies are important for PRIs to contribute to innovation performance?

As one of the main performers of public sector research, a very wide range of core policy instruments are relevant to PRIs:




Public sector research

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   Activities and outcomes

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Public research institutes

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Scientific unions

Technology transfer offices

Large domestic firms

Large foreign firms

Traditional SMEs

High-tech SMEs

Regulatory organisations

Funding organisations

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Third sector organisations

   Shaping factors

   Core policy instruments




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