Public sector research - key actors - research universities




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What are the main activities and interests of research universities?

The main activities of research universities can be characterised in terms of three "missions", as follows:

  • Education – the provision of an educated work force through mass tertiary education to bachelor level is an important mission of higher education institutes (HEIs). The research university has the added role of educating future generations of scientists through doctoral training programmes.
  • Research – in many OECD countries, research universities are the largest performers of public sector research. This is typically a mix of types of research, including experimental development of prototypes and the like, though basic research still predominates in most instances. 
  • Knowledge transfer – the last few decades have seen greater emphasis placed on the exploitation of public sector research knowledge in markets and in society more widely. This has led to greater R&D collaboration with industry and the emergence of infrastructure, such as technology incubators and technology transfer offices to foster transfer.
    Research universities in many OECD countries have traditionally cast themselves as the guardians of the autonomy of science. Indeed, the traditional organisation of higher education as a largely independent, autonomous domain is captured in the metaphor of the “Republic of Science” (Polanyi, 1962). In this model, higher education is insulated from governmental steering and its governance is primarily in the hands of academics, through self-assessment and quality assurance mechanisms like peer-review. This model, which was never universally applied, has adapted over time in response to changes in public sector funding regimes, particularly the increased use of competitive R&D project grants that address key socio-economic challenges.


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

Being one of the main public research performing actors, research universities are more or less active in all of the activities associated with public research contributing to innovation performance. Their main contributions, however, lie in the scientific record and inter-sectoral mobility, and, to a lesser extent, in providing scientific advice to governments and engaging in technological development. These are the traditional realms for research universities to contribute to innovation and remain extremely important. Many OECD governments have sought to improve research universities’ performance in this regard, building-up and focusing resources on centres of research and teaching excellence, introducing more competitive funding regimes, and introducing stronger accountability regimes in the form of research organisation evaluation.


In recent decades, research universities have come under increasing pressure to contribute more explicitly to innovation, particularly through spin-off and knowledge market activity. More and more of their research and teaching activities are being carried out in collaboration with firms. Sometimes, these activities may be in conflict with the research university’s more traditional activities, given the opportunity costs involved and the different incentive regimes that govern different types of activity.


What resources and capabilities do research universities need in order to contribute to innovation performance?

Research universities require significant amounts of funding and infrastructure to carry out their missions. They also require a mix of skills to conduct teaching and research, and, increasingly, to engage in commercialisation activities. Some of these activities, such as commercialisation, are often concentrated in specialists units, such as technology transfer offices. At an organisational level, research universities require the capabilities to respond to the changing needs of economies for skills and research, to anticipate future needs and their consequences, and to strategically position and steer their activities.


Which actors are important for research universities to contribute to innovation performance?

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

  • Research universities tend to depend heavily on public research funding organisations for financing their research activities, although firms, policy-making and regulatory organisations, and private foundations can also fund their research. The priorities and interests of these funders will influence the sorts of research that research universities engage in. Increasingly, research universities are being funded to conduct research in support of explicit societal goals.
  • Public research institutes can be useful research collaborators, particularly when they host large infrastructures for conducting research. In many countries, however, the relationship between research universities and PRIs tends to be more competitive than collaborative, sometimes to the point of being destructive.
  • Third sector organisations and civil society more widely increasingly articulate demands for scientific advice and research and have expectations that research universities should meet these.


Which factors shape research universities’ contributions to innovation performance?

Several factors can influence the contributions research universities make to innovation:

  • The balance between discretionary organisational funding and competitive R&D project grants will be shaped by prevailing PSR funding regimes. Discretionary funding, in the form of general university funding (GUF), is needed to finance research laboratories and to cover the salaries and other benefits of researchers. Competitive funding is important for nurturing quality and productivity of university research, and can also be used by funding organisations to steer research towards favoured directions.
  • Academic career structures and the incentives they embody will strongly shape the types of contributions research universities can make to innovation. For example, where an academic’s contributions to the scientific record is the sole criteria for career progression, the other channels through which research universities can contribute to innovation are likely to remain under-developed.
  • If there is expectation that research universities will contribute directly to firms’ innovation activities, e.g. through R&D collaboration and knowledge markets, then existing demand from the business sector for such activities and outputs needs to be taken into account. In this regard, industrial ecology and economic development and specialisation all have a strong bearing on the level and nature of demand from firms for the products of research universities.


What policies influence the contributions of research universities to innovation performance?

Being one of the main performers of public sector research in several OECD countries, a very wide range of core policy instruments are relevant to research universities:


Polanyi, M. (1962), “The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory”, Minerva, Volume 1, pp.54-74.


Public sector research

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