South African universities should produce more commercial ideas

Ideas shouldn’t be confined to academic institutions but should aid a country’s development. Shutterstock

Universities are becoming more than teaching and learning institutions. They are increasingly expected to help support themselves by generating income from their research and expertise. The shift towards applying knowledge is driven by society’s demand for technological innovation and by shortages in government funding for higher education.

Research publications, patents, copyrights and licensing are ways of measuring how far a university has moved in this direction. Research publications measure basic research output and the other indicators show applied research output.

We investigated the performance of South African universities in terms of patents and publications. Our inquiry was guided by the concept of the Triple Helix put forward by Henry Etzkowitz, a leading scholar recognised for his work on innovation studies. It is a framework that calls for a strong, symbiotic relationship between universities, industry and government. In this way knowledge is produced to benefit the whole society.

The research shows South African universities are good at producing academic papers, but not at translating them into innovations and patents.

A strong link between universities and industry is important for a developing country in which many social problems are local in nature and require a locally developed solution. The prevalence of certain diseases like tuberculosis is one example. The government’s role in the triple helix is to come up with policies that support the solution – or to step in where a market has failed.

The entrepreneurial university

Worldwide, universities are looking at translating their basic research into technology-oriented output. This form of interdisciplinary knowledge production is known as “Mode 2” – as distinct from the traditional way of teaching individual disciplines, or Mode 1. Traditional teaching and research universities are now including innovative commercial outputs in their curriculum.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the best example in the world. In the US, the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to share in the benefit from their inventions. MIT generates huge income and many spin-off firms have been conceived by its students, researchers and teachers.

What is now emerging is the “entrepreneurial university”. The technology produced in laboratories is now being commercialised.

Etzkowitz recently delivered a keynote speech at the 17th Triple Helix Conference in South Africa. He has suggested that in any national innovation system, universities can sell their technology to industry and government can facilitate the process through funding or policy intervention.

There are many criticisms of the triple helix model. One is that it is a top-down approach. Another is that it neglects the business element. There is also a question about whether it is useful in non-Western contexts. So far, there is no example of it working successfully in a developing part of the world.

Our research shows how far South Africa is from fitting the model. But more research is needed on the South African case specifically.

Performance of South African universities

The research measured the performance of South African universities using the Scopus database for basic science output. Scopus is the largest citation and abstract database of scholarly publications in all branches of knowledge. It is maintained by Elsevier, a publishing business.

Universities’ performance on applied technology was measured using the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s Patentscope database.

The findings suggest that South African universities are good at publishing basic research. Scholarly articles indexed in the Scopus database show that cumulatively, South African universities publish a good number of research papers. They do better on this measure than industry institutions (such as Mintek) and companies or government research institutions like the CSIR and the Medical Research Council.

But these universities have contributed only about 14% of all South African patents. This is a lower performance than universities in comparable countries such as China.

Our study found diversity in terms of productivity among the South African universities. The University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria perform well at both publication and patenting. Younger universities such as Tshwane University of Technology and the country’s two new universities cannot be expected to perform at the same level as the more established and globally reputed institutions.

How universities can support the economy

South Africa’s White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation emphasises the promotion of innovation in every sphere. There is a need to develop the science, technology, innovation and technology transfer capabilities of universities. They should do more to turn basic research into applied knowledge and revenue.

The Triple Helix model could encourage a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in South African universities and in the local population. This could produce technological solutions that benefit society.

What is still needed is a better understanding of how the model can work in low-income developing countries. Does it ease or hinder the national system of innovation and development? Getting this right in South Africa could set an example for other African countries.