Enrique Dans
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Enrique Dans

IMAGE: Michael Maggs — CC BY SA

Why can’t universities and business start working together for the common good?

Yet another academic, angry with technology companies that are luring more and more brilliant minds from the universities, has ridiculed the research work produced by these companies, offering the elitist argument that somehow, only universities can produce “real science”.

The barriers between academia and industry were created a long time ago and I have experienced and suffered them during the three decades of my career: they are as useless, absurd and harmful as when I first encountered them. At a time when companies are the driving force behind so much change, the idea that research should be limited to universities is backward looking and of great concern.

Obviously, universities and businesses assess performance according to different metrics: in industry, the bottom line is the final arbiter. In any company, people tend to be appreciated based on the money they generate or help generate: companies do not exist to promote the advancement of science. But sometimes they do carry out research that contributes to that advancement, basically if it will given them a sustainable competitive advantage. This has been traditionally been based on an attempt to appropriate scientific knowledge through mechanisms such as patents, which give the patentee a period of time to exploit a breakthrough. But increasingly, patents are no longer doing that, and what’s more, increasingly, sustainable competitive advantage comes about through sharing, rather than building fences around knowledge.

In the academic world, the traditional indicator of success has always been publication… but unfortunately, most academic publications have prostituted themselves and lost all value. These days, publications are a useless measure that tends to reflect only how skilled academics are at recycling their work ad infinitum, taking advantage of colleagues, and climbing up the ladder of the not exactly meritocratic community of reviewers, editors and conference organizers to position their papers in certain journals that supposedly provide the necessary prestige to reach the goal of tenure, a corrupt system that has done incalculable damage to knowledge production over the years.

The exploitation of academic knowledge has given rise to an industry of publishers with interests that have nothing to do with the diffusion of science, but instead in making profits from the work of academics trying to survive in a perverse system. Universities around the world, along with some Nobel laureates have called for a boycott of the publishers of academic journals that charge stratospheric prices, limiting access to science a few: a deeply flawed and harmful system that supposedly ranks publications according to their impact, but that are of little use and instead have created an underworld of false results, revisions that are invented or never carried out, along with systems created specifically to make it reasonably easy to access research papers. In other words, an unsustainable system, a moral dilemma characterized by lies and irrelevant content that should prompt us to rethink the university system from its foundations up. Anyone who still defends this absurd system is deeply mistaken: the academic world has become a vast factory system producing more and more papers, the more incomprehensible the better and practically inaccessible.

Instead, companies need to be given the possibility of working with institutions focused generating useful research, particularly that with a degree of applicability. Obviously, there are shades of grey here: pure research is also important, but it should be balanced with the need to produce results that attract potential parties interested in financing it.

In other words, research as a way to produce exploitable and genuinely useful results for the companies that finance it, while allowing academics to develop a career dedicated to generating it. A fit that, due to erroneous metrics and absurd assessment systems has proved elusive for decades, difficult to sustain and, in many cases, generating huge frustration.

Take the example of machine learning: how to meet the needs for a capacity for methodological abstraction and the generation of huge amounts of data that can be used by industry along with the required academic rigor and the needs of applicability and practicality that companies demand? Unless we involve both worlds, we will find ourselves once again constructing suboptimal, absurd scenarios in which the development of the discipline suffers due to a lack of resources that, in the vast majority of cases, were just a few clicks away, but sadly, the lack of protocols made this impossible.

Squaring this circle is, at this moment, the biggest challenge for deans of institutions that, with few exceptions, have been stagnating within increasingly unattractive, fossilized structures for years, with a growing distance between their constituent parties. At the same time managers must learn to see how the generation of the knowledge required to maintain a competitive advantage is, in many cases, impaired by short-term objectives that are very difficult to combine with the rigor and methodology of research work.

This isn’t about begging for money from companies or donating money to universities along the lines of CRS… it’s about creating value from connections.

Instead, it’s about accessing resources that are subject to the appropriate level of control, and also about other aspects: data, people who can make important contributions, joint projects… It is about building a system that provides value to both parties.

The key to success is ever closer collaboration between universities and business at all levels. To be honest, I’ve had my fill of academics throwing stones from atop their ivory towers.

(En español, aquí)

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On the effects of technology and innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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Enrique Dans

Enrique Dans

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

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