The Transfer of Knowledge and University-Firm Tensions: Contributions from S&T Studies to the Understanding of a New Institutional Paradigm

The Transfer of Knowledge and University-Firm Tensions: Contributions from S&T Studies to the Understanding of a New Institutional Paradigm

Hugo Pinto (University of Coimbra, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1642-2.ch017


Innovation is transformed in an encompassing domain where different types of actors are connected and interrelated. Nevertheless, academic science often feels threatened by the new emerging institutional paradigm characterized by the economic exploitation of public research results. This chapter explores university-firm relations and tensions, discussing the increased relevance of knowledge transfer. The ideas of Ludwik Fleck, intellectual precursor of Social Studies of S&T, contribute to the understanding of the difficulties of communication between different collectives, their styles of thought and the importance of ‘marginal individuals' in connecting different institutional spheres. Based on a qualitative approach to the case study of a Portuguese university attempting to create bridges with the business world, the text illustrates differences between the ‘academic science' and the firm, the recent institutionalization of commercialization of research, and findings for policy-making and management of knowledge transfer activities.
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The ‘third mission’ of the university is related with the emergence of a new mode of knowledge production, the importance of science in innovation systems, and triple helix relations, underlining the focus given to a variety of organizations and institutions related to innovation. A different logic has emerged where the role of knowledge networks is underlined with various actors interacting in the public and private sectors. Recent decades witnessed the growing difficulty in separating between public good and industrial property. These two spheres were initially distant but are now closer, which has led to the emergence of ‘academic enterprise’ with new regulatory and normative schemes and cognitive values ​​centered in a systematic effort to strengthen the short-term economic value of research and facilitate commercialization of inventions (Larsen, 2011). The emergence of ‘academic enterprise’ results largely from dissatisfaction with the direct and measurable benefits of public science. This fact, noted by Pavitt (2001) as the search for greater relevance of public science, was the first justification for the university to seek the firm. The second justification for this new relationship has been the sharp decline in public funding for academic research associated with the increasing costs of research.

These topics are normally analyzed using quantitative approaches (Bergman, 2010). It is common for studies on university-industry relations to focus certain metrics and use econometric approaches to ascertain the determinants and effectiveness of this relationship, both from the perspective of firms and public science actors (Larsen, 2011). However, the study of university-firm interactions would benefit of incorporating concepts and approaches from areas such as the Science and Technology Studies (STS) that have also given attention to these phenomena, yielding important policy implications for science and technology (S&T).

This chapter seeks to deepen the debate on knowledge transfer and university-firm relations. The text is organized as follows. The first section discusses the notions of knowledge transfer and its emergence as a central aspect of contemporary change in the role of science. The second section presents the main ideas of Fleck, the precursor of STS, emphasizing relevant aspects to the understanding of knowledge transfer. Then, it presents an empirical study analyzing the specific case of the interaction of the University of Algarve (UAlg) in Portugal1 and the regional economic fabric, the attempts to understand differences between the collectives of thought of researchers and firms, namely small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that represent the large majority of firms in this region, and how these groups comprise the role of university’s knowledge transfer office in mediating the relationship between these two institutional spheres. The chapter concludes with solutions and recommendations for the limits of knowledge transfer and presents future research directions.

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