ISSN 0718-3291 Printed version

ISSN 0718-3305 Online version

Volume 16 N° 2, July - September 2008

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Innovation in universities


Nowadays, one of the major challenges for universities in Latin America is to fully recovering a function found in the origin of these institutions, that is, the management of social knowledge. The university, since its origin, is an institution of very peculiar characteristics, since it combines social knowledge generation, assimilation and diffusion tasks, with autonomy from civilian, religious or military interference, their financing relying in the prestige and influence of its members.  Such prestige and influence have been subject to fluctuations throughout the centuries, but it may be said that the university has been an active interface between knowledge - imported, produced or adapted - from various sources and their social applications in such different areas as production, law, politics, engineering and many others.

Nevertheless, the way in which the application of knowledge is transferred or produced varies a great deal more than the final sense (or abstraction) of the university's activities. The disciplinary management has deeply changed during the last thirty years (perhaps the Bay-Dole Act, puts a visible sign  at the beginning of the 80's in USA), with the introduction of market criteria in university activities. In engineering and other applied sciences areas, an attempt is made to introduce technological development in their normal activities. An innovation that must be done in coherence with the way that the society we live in assigns resources, which in the case of technological changes, require market participation mechanisms. 

In this sense it seems necessary to clarify that there no conceptual differences between science and technology, regarding:  

(a) disciplinary objective, since even in the most abstract disciplines may, and in fact it happens, result in the development of commercial products

(b) methodological procedures

(c) merit, value or cost of each activity. 

The difference between science and technology is to be understood in an endogenous way in its relation with certain market mechanisms. The borderline  between science and technology is found in the trading potentiality of the results of the creative and innovative work at a certain price (no matter how imperfect they may be) or by means of social contributions based on the intrinsic merit of the applied work. 

Thus, changing the traditional functions of the university is not the challenge, the point is to renew the way in which knowledge is transferred to the community, that is to say, producing and managing knowledge with commercial value. It is also not the case of simply adding other task to those historically assigned to universities (specially the ones in Latin America). The idea is to proceed in an integral and harmonic way, since technology may not substitute scientific development in its more “pure” expression, that is in formulations that, from an economic perspective, are farther away from the market. That is, not superimposing activities far from the interest areas cultivated at each research center, since technological ideas do not grow without a solid scientific grounding. 

Also, the traditional university functions, such as teaching and outreach cannot be put apart, since they are, necessarily and organically, integrated with the science and technology that nourishes them. In fact, most of the breaking technological contributions arise from young researchers bringing boldness and creativity to scientific knowledge. 

The task is nothing less than updating the definition of university work. In a society that has deeply changed, the idea of innovation jumps out of economy texts to make us understand, in the hardest way, that innovation is a necessity for the social actors to survive, since if an individual, a company or other kind of institution does not innovate, or at least updates its knowledge, someone else will, throwing  it out of the market by the competition. 

The competitive market of technological ideas has aspects that are not well known and which have obviously not been assimilated by academic communities. We cannot go very deep about this subject, but there are some relevant aspects that are worth mentioning  about the Latin American  tradition. These are: 

- The value of competitive technological research, The development of innovation is a high risk industry. There is a considerable evidence showing the difficulties in forecasting the return value of a new ideas, the market fluctuations of technological companies in recent years being the most clear evidence of such difficulty. Not only the problem of result predictability appears repeatedly; there is also plenty of evidence that high complexity innovation is moving to universities and other high complexity research centers. 

- Publishing and invention patenting are in a sense non-compatible, since scientific activity is subject to peer review and this leads to publishing. On the other hand, innovation implies novelty, thus public knowledge is not subject to patent or appropriation, which leads to an early decision about the purpose of scientific research projects. This is no simple task, considering the preceding point. 

- Multiple solutions to common problems. The technological development impulse comes from the need of solving (the market) problems, so it is normal to observe technological research projects of different nature (disciplinary or methodologically) trying to solve the same problems. The latter causes logical anxiety and competition among researchers, and at the same time, confusion among university resource managers. 

- Team work complexity. Modern technological development is increasingly the result of multidisciplinary teams, scattered throughout a great variety of institutions and countries, involving institutional actors operating with distinct logic (enterprises, government, and universities). This situation brings up the need of new ways of contracting and associating, a context where the traceability of innovation in productive processes and common use resource availability become absolutely necessary at the time of sharing the benefits of applied research. 



Fernando Cabrales Muñoz
Regional Head
Corfo Región de Arica y Parinacota
Address: 7 de junio 268, piso 7
Arica, Chile





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