Research Universities and the Sputnik Moment
Turning Universities into Engines of Innovation
It’s hard to imagine a meaningful response to President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” that does not involve the nation’s research universities. With a history measured in centuries rather than years or decades, combined endowments in excess of $250 billion, Nobel prize-winning faculty, and a generation of students as intellectually curious and socially committed as any in history, research universities are among the crown jewels of our society. The demise of many leading private research facilities further underscores the importance of universities in igniting a national innovation agenda. In the words of Stanford’s President John Hennessy, “If the universities don’t work on the world’s biggest problems, who will?”
Since the publication three months ago of our book Engines of Innovation—The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, readers and reviewers have agreed that universities have no choice but to assume leadership in what some are calling a “national reset.” As is often the case, the real challenge is how to make it happen. Although one size never fits all, we want to suggest some basic principles and make some recommendations to make universities more innovative and as a result increase their impact on the world’s biggest problems.
First, we want to assert a core belief: Universities are about problem solving—the bigger, the better. They encourage independent and unfettered thinking. They have stood the test of time because of the unique position they occupy somewhere between government, religion, and private enterprise. Increasing the impact of universities involves building on their unique culture, which is particularly well suited to foster innovation.
A corollary to this belief is that commercialization, in and of itself, is not central to the mission of most universities. Private corporations and NGO’s that respond quickly to markets, customers, and opportunities are much better suited to turn new knowledge into viable enterprises. Relationships between universities and the private and civic sector are important because they help academics determine what problems to work on, and they increase the impact of the work that is being done. The new companies, jobs, and wealth created by relationships between academia and the private sector are important by-products of the academic enterprise. If these relationships help universities become better problem solvers, the rest will take care of itself.
First, we want to assert a core belief: Universities are about problem solving—the bigger, the better.
We are convinced that culture is more important than structure in encouraging innovation. Encouraging problem-centered, multidisciplinary teams that can quickly come together and, as appropriate, come apart, is one important element of an innovation culture. Tolerating, and even celebrating, failure is another. Examining the reward structure, especially as it applies to young professors, is also important. Welcoming innovators and entrepreneurs as speakers and teachers has an enormous and often unpredictable impact on university culture. Ultimately we are talking about an environment that gives permission and encouragement to innovate and then gets out of the way.
High-impact innovation requires that universities focus on big problems. This is what best furthers the university’s research and teaching mission and is most consistent with its core competencies. It is also what captures the imagination of students, faculty, and alumni and is the best use of its existing resources. Big problems, especially these days, are highly complex and require multiple perspectives and points of view. No other institution in our society can assemble teams of physicians, engineers, chemists, biologists, and computer scientists to attack a particular disease. We suggest that such teams are even more effective if they include an ethicist, an economist, and a historian.
Maximizing innovation at a research university also requires involving the entire campus, not just the sciences and engineering. This is a lesson that was hammered home on our own campus after the publication of our book. During a symposium led by the chairman of the history department, we discussed the need to accept failure as part of the innovation process. It was suggested that the history department could be renamed the Department of Ambiguity and Failure and, as such, had an important role to play in both encouraging risk taking and learning from mistakes. We also learned that when high-impact innovation is characterized as attacking the world’s biggest problems, humanists and social scientists are eager to join with scientists and engineers in the problem-solving process. Soon after the symposium, a veteran faculty member stopped one of us on campus and said, “I have one piece of advice: Get history and chemistry, and the hearts and minds will follow.”
We have found that to be the case not only in the traditional disciplines, but also in medicine, public health, education, law, journalism, and business. No one wants to be left out of a great mission, and attacking big problems certainly qualifies.
Redefining who can belong to the academic community will also impact the volume and quality of innovation on a university campus. The arts long ago realized that practitioners were essential to the effective teaching of dance, music, writing, and filmmaking and welcomed nonacademics to join their departments. Such an approach can be applied throughout the university by enlisting practitioners as innovators and entrepreneurs in residence. Adding practitioners to the multidisciplinary teams we have already described results in dramatic and often unexpected impact, and they often provide an important bridge between academia and the commercial world. In response to a question from a delegation from Malaysia asking what was the single most important action that could be taken to develop a culture of innovation on a university campus, we answered, “Invite some entrepreneurs to join the faculty and then get out of the way.”
The last principle we want to emphasize is that creating an innovative environment within a university requires the support of the ecosystem that surrounds the university. By now it should be clear we believe a university cannot by itself maximize all of the new knowledge it creates. It requires a robust collection of entrepreneurs, financers, large corporations, and nongovernmental organizations to truly perform its function as an engine of innovation. In some cases, innovation hubs have naturally grown up around great universities, and in others, they have been purposefully created. Whatever the case, high-impact innovation will not happen without a supportive adjacent eco-system. Where such systems do not exist, public and private efforts should be focused on creating them.
The process of writing our book, the run-up to its publication and countless conversations, seminars, and a universitywide symposium have provided us with many ideas for maximizing innovation and impact at research universities. We begin with funders—government, foundations, and individual donors—because in the current environment of austerity, outside funding can have an extraordinary impact on university culture. Government and foundation grants that are problem based insist on measurable goals and require multidisciplinary cooperation and can contribute significantly to creating an on-campus culture of innovation. Grants that require partnerships with external companies or other entities and the participation of practitioners as well as academics are also a good idea. Employing competitions and prizes that require the kind of cooperation we have described will provide funding agencies with incredible leverage if such cooperation is a pre-condition for receiving funding. The recently passed America COMPETES Act explicitly authorizes the use of such competitions by federal agencies, and private foundations such as the Gates Foundation have demonstrated the impact of prizes and competitions as well.
Every university will approach differently the challenge of increasing impact by creating a more innovative environment. A day-long symposium at our own university yielded a series of provocative suggestions, including the following:
- Encourage multidisciplinary classes, preferably problem based, as a means of encouraging multidisciplinary research.
- Consider establishing one campuswide initiative with a multiyear duration focused on a single problem as a way of marshalling resources and creating a unified mission.
- Involve the humanities and social sciences in problem-based teams because they provide an important perspective that is often missed if only scientists and engineers participate.
- Create physical environments that facilitate cross-disciplinary conversations. We are absolutely convinced that space matters.
- Establish clinical experiences because they ignite passion. Getting students, especially graduate students, in touch with real problems will “fire them up.”
- Help younger faculty to negotiate the university bureaucracy so that they can maximize the impact of their work and succeed in their discipline.
- Encourage collaboration with practitioners as a way of increasing impact. Entrepreneurs in residence is a great model.
The president’s Sputnik moment should be a cause for celebration among those of us who work in higher education. It is an invitation to academics to do more.
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