Tribuna – Arturo Fernández: Universities and Businesses
26 August 2007
We live in a globalised world in which the generation of knowledge is the essential raw material for the creation of wealth. This fact, so often repeated, is so evident that developing countries such as China and India already invest as much as developed countries in the generation of new scientific knowledge. They are developing structures to transform this knowledge into technology, which later will be applied by businesses in new processes, products and services considered innovative by the markets.
Investment in knowledge generates wealth and the statistics compiled by a multitude of bodies in all fields, from economics to science, corroborate the fact that the countries and regions that invest most in research and technological development, and in training people to do so efficiently, are richer than those that invest less or nothing at all.
For instance, producing low levels of one’s own technology leads to a negative balance of technological payments, which in turn drags down the trade balance as a whole. Germany generates a technological surplus of 1.137 billion euros, in contrast to a technological deficit of 834 million euros in Spain, according to very recent OCDE figures.
This makes us reflect on the importance of the indivisible sequence of research, technological development and innovation, which is by no means as linear as it is described here. On the contrary, the relationships between the processes involved that model the basic sequence are becoming increasingly complex, including factors such as the protection of industrial and intellectual property, financing, regional cooperation and the internationalisation of activities, among others.
However, this complexity must be simplified if we are to accept that universities must understand that the creation of knowledge, which is in itself important and therefore requires no justification, needs the business world not just for ideas but also to generate the resources required to develop them.
The relationship between the university (and by extension the world of research) and business have not historically been fluid in our country, where there has been a clear gap between the objectives of the various institutions, no doubt because of a case of oversimplification: universities must educate people and carry out research and businesses must make money.
Obviously, universities must educate people who can subsequently carry on their academic tasks, educating or conducting research, but they must also train people who can work for companies. This duality makes it hard to define the form that university education should take and what students are expected to take away following their studies.
It would seem to me a huge case of oversimplification, a serious mistake even, to say that universities must train people for business or to be at the service of business. I believe that the university must equip people with knowledge in a given area and train them in how to use this knowledge. To say that the university must be at the service of business is, in my opinion, a mistake, because it removes one of the essential functions of the university, to conduct research, and this requires the freedom to ask questions without knowing whether they will lead to something more than just new knowledge.
The fact that the university provides students with knowledge means that, as the case may be, they can make use of this knowledge in business, and this requires a meeting point between the objectives of the university and the needs of business. However, there is no doubt that the university must inject more than just acquired knowledge, namely the ability to use it.
We must not forget that the university has a responsibility to the society that it is part of, an essential component of which is the business world, which has specific requirements in keeping with its goals: to generate profit for its employees, shareholders and society.
I will not be the one, as a businessman and chairman of the Madrid Business Confederation (CEIM), to say unequivocally that the universities do not understand the needs of a profit and loss account and the obligations of business owners to their employees and shareholders. When a company incorporates technology to be more competitive it looks for it wherever it believes it can acquire it most efficiently, whether on the market or through research and technological development (R&TD).
It is this area, in R&TD, that there is clearly still a significant divide in our country. The universities complain about businesses’ demands in terms of defining ideas, deadlines and costs. In turn, the businesses complain of the university’s lack of interest when it comes to the needs of companies, requirements that are very real since they have a profit and loss account at the end of the process.
It is in this process that as businesspeople we have become aware that we need to know more about the means and objectives of the universities. But at the same time, we have learned something: what we do not want the university to be. We do not want it to be a generic education centre; we do not want it to be a world that is closed off from societal demands; we do not want its objective to be spending, rather than efficient production.
However, we do want to contribute to its development, provide resources for its activity (which must have a defined application), encourage a more flexible approach that is more open to the world, promote collaboration and participate in its ultimate development, because part of our future is linked to its success.
As a businessman, I am in any event optimistic, because the two sides of the process that I have described are becoming increasingly aware that they need each other. In the case of the Region of Madrid, this is an important step forward. The CEIM has for over five years been an active participant in the development of more active collaborative policies, particularly within Madrid’s Regional Innovation System.
I firmly believe that this participation generates a new perception, a culture of collaboration between researchers and businesspeople. There are plenty of examples: our membership of the Madri+d Foundation Trust, our presence as a driving force in the Madrid Institutes of Advanced Studies (IMDEA), our support in collaboration with the CEIM’s member associations in marketing the technologies generated in universities and research centres, and our participation in the processes of technology-based companies.
The Region of Madrid, for its part, has strived to unify the objectives of universities and businesses through the variable funding of certain university activities that are related to collaboration with business. This undoubtedly brings the academic and research world closer to the business world, fostering a relationship that has not always been well understood by either party, and which must be facilitated and encouraged by way of incorporating incentives, something which is, moreover, common in business activity.
We need Madrid to transform itself into a place of science and technology, one that occupies a pre-eminent position in this area among European countries, and undoubtedly both the universities and the Madrid Regional Government, as ever, will receive our support.
Part of our future as businesspeople and as a region, as I have said, depends on the success of this undertaking.
Arturo Fernández, Chairman of the CEIM
Link to article at: CincoDías.com