Reconceptualising University Contribution to Knowledge Exchange: Broadening our Understanding of Motivations, Channels and Stakeholders

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Fumi Kitagawa and colleagues discuss the importance of knowledge exchange for Universities, but how there remains a bias towards the commercialisation of STEM fields.

This was originally published on the Centre for Innovation Management Research website.

In recent years, fostering knowledge exchange (KE) between academics and external stakeholders has become increasingly important within the policy agenda. Universities have recognised the significance of KE as a “third mission” alongside research and teaching, leading to the institutionalisation of KE as a major branch of their activity.

While this development acknowledges the diversity of KE in terms of activities and actors, there remains a bias towards the commercialisation of research and a dominant focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Such a narrow perspective obscures KE’s diverse impacts and values that KE holds for society. As a guest editorial team with shared interests in the role of higher education in KE processes, we came together and called for papers addressing these concerns.

The result of these collective efforts is a special issue in Studies in Higher Education aiming to overcome the prevailing narrow notion of KE and address broader questions related to engagement and incentives towards KE.

The special issue comprises seven papers that seek to broaden our understanding of KE, by considering more diverse audiences and impacts, and deepen the understanding of tensions and trade-offs between university missions – Teaching, Research and Third Mission. The volume altogether sheds light on several themes that have received comparatively less attention in the literature.

Exploring neglected themes in KE

The papers in this special issue explore these three interrelated themes across various levels of analysis, including individual and organizational (HEIs), considering a variety of geographical scopes.

The participation of a diverse set of academic actors in KE activities: The special issue delves into the diversity of mechanisms and actors involved in KE activities while examining individual and organizational aspects affecting these processes (i.e. motivations, incentives, metrics). Studies of KE have focused mainly on advanced industrial economies, neglecting developing and emerging economies with weaker innovation ecosystems and institutions. Athreye, Sengupta and Odetunde investigate in their paper the motivations, intentions, and perceptions of academics towards KE in Nigeria, finding that academics’ perception of organizational support is an important factor influencing entrepreneurial outcomes, particularly in situations where entrepreneurial ecosystems and institutions are weak and unsupportive. Lawson and Salter investigate gender differences in KE, finding a reversed gender gap can be found for KE with the third sector, as women are more likely to engage with charities regardless of their career stage and research field. Ramos-Vielba and D’Este also find that women tend to show higher participation than men in informal KE activities, while the reverse is true for commercialization activities. Significantly, women’s participation in commercialization activities has a positive peer effect, which increases the likelihood of other women scientists engaging in commercialisation.

Academics’ engagement with under-explored KE stakeholders such as policymakers and the public sector: The special issue discusses the diversity of users and targets of academic knowledge, with a focus on the relationships between HEIs and users in the public and third sectors. Bozeman, Bretschneider, Lindsay, Nelson and Didier find that communication approaches such as public media and journal impact factors are good predictors of both policy and management use. Thune, Reymert, Gulbrandsen and Simensen also highlight that policy and research interact through multiple and complex channels and relationships, which they refer to as ‘co-production spaces’ between universities and government organizations involving small groups of individuals embedded in specific expert networks.

Tensions and trade-offs between traditional teaching and research activities and KE as a third institutional mission: The special issue discusses tensions and trade-offs between different university missions. Two papers in this special issue explore the role of incentives on academics’ KE engagement. Rentocchini and Rizzo examine the relationship between different university missions and find that pressures on academics to prioritise teaching has had a negative effect on individual attitudes and incentives to participate in KE. Focussing on the academic actors, Atta-Owusu and Dahl Fitjar find that direct rewards tend to diminish engagement in KE activities, while perceived indirect benefits have an enhancing effect.

Implications for policy and research

As noted in our Editorial, the papers in the special issue point to the importance of broadening the engagement agenda and identifying some implications for policy and future research. We need to be more aware of the socially embedded nature of the KE and of the biases and power relations at play. For instance, since female academics engage more with the Third Sector at every level of their career, having KE activities disproportionately represented by commercialization is not only partial but also carries a significant gender bias.

Highlights from the contributions in this volume carry both policy and management implications. KE policy should not be designed in isolation. KE activities intersect with other university missions and activities, so policymakers must consider trade-offs between different missions and resource implications between them. Complex factors influence individual academics’ choices, including university incentives, which moderate the link between intention and actual engagement. It is important to understand not only the motivations of academics towards KE, but also, their social and cultural preferences, and economic factors that may hinder their contributions to KE engagement. In order to better understand the impact of KE, we need to unpack the relationship with the broader innovation ecosystem where KE takes place, through the linkages and interdependencies between different actors and intermediaries. This includes capturing the effects on partner organizations and individuals over time, including their learning processes. Finally, indicators for KE need to include softer metrics on the quality of relationships and the social value they generate to fully accounts for the multiple impacts of KE.

The Special Issue is available via the website.

This blog was written by Fumi Kitagawa (City-REDI, University of Birmingham), Chiara Marzocchi (University of Newcastle), Federica Rossi (Birkbeck, University of London), Elvira Uyarra (University of Manchester)

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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