Public sector research - key actors - researchers



What are the main activities and interests of public sector researchers?

The OECD Canberra Manual defines researchers as “professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, and in the management of the projects concerned.”  Researchers are a sub-group of human resources in science and technology (HRST), which  include “people who fulfil one or other of the following conditions: a) successfully completed education at the third level in an S&T field of study; b) not formally qualified as above, but employed in a S&T occupation where the above qualifications are normally required.”


The main activity of public sector researchers evolves around generating original knowledge. Incentives, if well-designed, will remunerate contributions made to the scientific community and peer recognition. Often the measure of success applied are publications in peer-reviewed journals and the number of citations to researcher’s knowledge creations; an academic’s career frequently depends on such indicators. The need to create original knowledge generates performance pressure and competition among researchers to push the knowledge frontier. Other activities, such as creating spin-offs, might not be of specific interest to public sector researchers as these constitute additional activities that are generally not rewarded in terms of future career opportunities or higher peer recognition.


Evidence on the number of researchers highlights substantial differences across countries for both the public and private sectors. Generally speaking, these numbers reflect the levels of spending on R&D.


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

The pursuit of scientific excellence based on incentive structures of public sector researchers is, to the extent research focuses on developing knowledge that addresses challenges of socioeconomic relevance or proposes commercial opportunities, essential in providing the knowledge basis for future innovations. While researcher’s activities can contribute to all types of innovations and provide inputs leading to both radical and incremental innovations, researchers, whether employed in the private or public sector are the only actors to push for science-based innovations. Researchers in the public sector play a particularly significant role in pushing forward basic research, an important step towards future innovations private actors will rarely engage in. 


Researchers are major actors for all activities involving public sector research. They are principal creators of the scientific record. It is, however, important to point out that the relevance of contributions differs significantly across countries and specific S&T fields. For many fields, a few public research organisations tend to contribute disproportionately to the scientific record given superior performance in quality while others might focus on more incremental contributions to the scientific record.


Moving from the advancing knowledge to strengthen the scientific record to developing prototypes which incorporate such knowledge can be a cumbersome and long process. Researchers are important at the initial stages of technological development; their willingness to engage in research ventures can, moreover, give a significant push to develop prototypes. However, while scientific progress strongly relates to researchers’ activities many additional factors affect technological development. Specifically engineers will often face an important task as will entrepreneurs to devise products for markets. Ultimately consumers and governments as future clients will shape technological developments.


Researchers’ initiative is often essential for the creation of university and PRI high-tech spin-offs. Specifically if they do not themselves develop a vision of the commercial potential of their research findings it will be difficult for entrepreneurs alone to develop marketable products.


Public sector researchers can also be central actors in providing scientific-based neutral expert advice and consultancy mainly but not only to the public sector. The complexity of many scientific fields requires the public sector to rely on such expertise for informed policy-making. Private companies might similarly benefit from such expertise for the adoption of certain technologies. This activity by research could, then, in turn stimulate certain types of innovation, such as the optimal adoption of certain technologies by firms.


Researchers as major creators of knowledge are central contributors to knowledge markets. Knowledge created by researchers in public sector research organisations is traded in different ways, an important actor being technology transfer offices.


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

Equipment and financial resources for scientific research, particularly in the natural sciences, are often essential for scientific progress since lack of state-of-the-art scientific equipment will hamper the nature of experiments that can be realised. Moreover, the amount of available financial resources, the extent to which they are stable across time and conditions attached to funding strongly impact on the type of work researchers can engage in and, ultimately, possible outcomes for innovation performance.


Human capital matters significantly in that creating knowledge will require highly qualified researchers, wide opportunities to interact with leading research in specific and related fields as well as a talented student population to stimulate continuous progress to strengthen both the knowledge base and the development of innovations.


Capabilities beyond research will, moreover, facilitate opportunities for researchers to develop innovations. Importantly, this includes understanding the types of new products and services that would be interesting for demand, whether by firms and consumers, based in the specific field of research. Moreover, basic entrepreneurship skills will facilitate outreach by researchers significantly.


Which factors are important for public sector researchers to contribute to innovation performance?

Several shaping factors will influence the extent to which researchers contribute to innovation performance:

  • The scope and scale of public research has obvious implications for the contributions researchers can make to innovation. Where public research activities are piecemeal and sub-critical, contributions of researchers are likely to be low.
  • Since public spending is an important source of financing for public-sector researchers, public sector research funding regimes shape research activities significantly. For example, where funding regimes emphasise cooperation with industry or the creation of spin-off firms, researchers have stronger incentives to engage in such activities.
  • Where teaching and administrative tasks are essential to advance academic careers, then researchers might be constrained in their ability to contribute directly to more immediate innovation activities. At the same time, the importance of teaching for continually generating HRST, which is essential for an innovative economy, should not be under-estimated.
  • IPR regimes, where favourable, can provide incentives to researchers to patent inventions and to benefit from licensing income and spin-offs.
  • Labour market regulation might constrain opportunities for researchers to engage in more immediate innovation activities and develop interest in spin-off activities. Employment contracts which do not allow taking temporary sabbatical periods to engage in spin-off activities or that constrain researchers to engage with the private sector can restrain innovation activities. Furthermore, labour market regulations can hinder inter-sectoral mobility, thereby inhibiting the flow of embodied knowledge between public research and the rest of the economy and society.
  • Scientific community norms, where they are interpreted narrowly, can confine researchers’ contributions to innovation to the scientific record and the mobility of graduates.


Public sector research

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   Shaping factors

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