Ortmans: University research brings the local closer to the global

Editor’s note: This post was republished with permission from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Policy Dialogue blog.

Universities traditionally measure their impact on entrepreneurship locally. At last month’s Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC), Bill Aulet from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reminded us that in a world where national boundaries are porous to both innovation and knowledge creation, assessing our impact globally can be a strong driver of collective performance improvement.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, DC, recently assessed the extent to which 56 countries’ economic and trade policies either contribute to or detract from global innovation. Its January report adds to renewed interest in assessing the international effects of national policies for entrepreneurship and innovation.

ITIF’s list of countries that did the most to support global innovation and the least to detract from it, positioned the United States number 10, behind countries like Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Singapore and the Netherlands.

A good example of international spillover effects is university research, whose impact is ever more linked to effects on areas beyond a university’s surrounding local region. Increasingly, the impact of research universities is bringing farther locations closer together, tying the local to the global.

The head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council in England, Steven Hill, recently showedthat there is mounting and considerable evidence that investment in university research makes a difference well beyond the location where the research is carried out. Hill’s team developed a visualization tool that displays the geographical spread of impact from research in universities in the UK.

Measuring international impact

One would expect that given the strength, reputation and track record of our research universities, the United States would rank at the top of an international ranking of their impact. The U.S. is one of the most entrepreneurial economies on earth and given that universities assess their performance by key entrepreneurship indicators such as the number of companies created, patents licensed to industries to which they have links, jobs created through spinoff companies and more – they have an added cultural advantage.

A primary reason for this is that most U.S. research universities have focused on measuring their impact on the local economy. Few studies have assessed the impact of universities’ research on the broader global innovation system. One recent notable exception is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT is one the pioneers in conducting studies on its impact in fostering innovation and entrepreneurial growth, tracking many things such as its alumni’s career path on a periodic basis. While its 2009 report with the Kauffman Foundation focused on its alumni’s impact on the United States economy, MIT’s most recent report (December 2015) delves more deeply into the global reach of its entrepreneurship and innovation efforts, ranging from “a multiyear commitment to research-led innovation in Singapore to the more recent announcement of an innovation node for student activities in Hong Kong (providing a platform into Greater China)”. Other examples in the report include:

  • In 1998, the student leadership formed the MIT Global Startup Workshop to help students around the world stimulate entrepreneurship at their own campuses. The workshop meets in a different country each year and attracts hundreds of students and faculty, with government representatives from as many as 50 countries or more also attending. Its best-known spinoff is the MassChallenge accelerator, which was highlighted at the GEC in Medellin this past month to share lessons on its global practices.
  • The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), via its Global Startup Labs program, gives MIT students a chance to go into the field and share their entrepreneurship education and passion with young people in a range of developing countries.

Clearly, goodwill pays for students and alumni, and the MIT example shows that all boats rise with an incoming tide. Doing well domestically in creating a pipeline of talent and knowledge can also mean doing well for the world.

Factors and policies at play

In terms of policies for universities just embarking on this path to greater impact on innovation and economic growth, collaboration is key. ITIF’s innovation report, for example, argues in favor a Global Science and Innovation Foundation to fund scientific and engineering research on key global challenges, particularly through collaborative international research.

However, as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) study points out, while knowledge flows relatively easily, other aspects of the outputs that derive from research investment are more tied to a specific place, such as expertise and know-how of skilled people. These tend to be more localized.

Moreover, as we know, innovation that derives from university research depends on a complex interplay of factors. As a result, policies to unleash the local impact of research universities still have tremendous weight on outcomes. Alongside the issue of funding for research universities, a set of university intellectual property governance structures, incentives for faculty inventors and even national policies that constrain the movement of and access to talent also affect the impact of research universities, particularly of state-funded ones.

The university research example is relevant for all policymaking around entrepreneurship and innovation. If we want to benefit a specific economic location, to what extent does research investment need to be directed to that same target location? Given that knowledge flows to where it can be most effectively used, Steven Hill again argues, regional targeting of research investment may not be an especially effective mechanism for changing the pattern of economic activity.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University and co-author of “Converging Paths: Public and Private Research Universities in the 21st Century” has expressed that “most private research universities are now little different from their public counterparts in their support for local economies through technology transfer and startup activities — witness the catalytic role played by Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard as economic bulwarks in their regions. Even in mass education, the traditional mainstay of public universities, private schools have made an early commitment to developing open online platforms like Coursera, EdX and OpenCourseware.”

However, as Daniels rightly points out as well, private universities can never fully assume the public role of the public universities.

Tools for transnational learning

Greater learning about public university research policies will allow us to better understand how to improve outcomes and design more effective startup policy overall. Of course, as in any area intersecting entrepreneurship and innovation, one size won’t fit all when it comes to policies to maximize the impact of public research universities in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation.

In that regard, the Startup Nations Atlas of Policies (SNAP), a newly announced compendium of public sector policies and programs currently under construction, will soon become a useful tool. SNAP aims to serve as a resource for policymakers, advisors and opinion leaders to learn about previously implemented policy models, articulated entrepreneurship strategies and impact of policies at all levels and anywhere in the world.

SNAP is inspired by the notion that we live in world where learning and impact are not restrained by geography. As the MIT example has taught us, if nations increase their learning of all domestic policy experiments, the rate of innovation worldwide would significantly accelerate.

Those interested in more information about SNAP or in contributing content about a policy lever that has been tried and tested in their ecosystem – whether successful or not – are encouraged to contact the researchers behind it.

Jonathan Ortmans, Public Forum Institute president | Courtesy of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Jonathan Ortmans

Jonathan Ortmans serves as president of the Public Forum Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating the most advanced and effective means of fostering public discourse on major issues of the day.


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