07/02/2021

Bridges and talent circulation

3 min
The MareNostrum supercomputer in Barcelona, one of the essential equipment for the search.
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BarcelonaWith Next Generation funds, we aim to strengthen the health system, to make a significant contribution to the decarbonisation goals of the Paris Agreement, which the European Union has enthusiastically embraced, and to complete the digitisation of public administration and the economy. These three goals have one thing in common: they all challenge research and innovation systems. Without major scientific and technological breakthroughs, we will not succeed, and neither will we succeed without business adopting them.

So far this has been understood. The various calls from the Spanish and Catalan governments for expressions of interest include a requirement for a strong presence of knowledge partners. This is a valuable little boost, but it must now be ensured that it does not remain a mere rhetorical manifestation. The goals with substance will have to be twofold. One is to get our companies and administrations involved in projects that incorporate good science and technology in an essential way. Here the competitive pressures of markets and, in the case of administrations, good advisors will help. The other is to ensure that this demand for knowledge, in principle aimed at those who can provide it under the best conditions, stimulates local supply.

In other words, we must seize the opportunity to ensure that our research actors (universities, centres and others) contribute to the best of their abilities to the great transformative project that the Next Generation can make possible. Here too, however, we will have to promote facilitating measures. Bringing companies and research agents administratively closer together will not be enough. It will be necessary, at the very least, to build bridges between the two worlds; bridges, moreover, through which talent can circulate and ideas can be traded.

The world of universities and the world of business live, between us, in different legal universes: one in administrative law, the other in commercial law. Even if they have the will to communicate - and they currently do - communication is difficult. We need bridges, in the form of intermediary entities governed by private law (companies, foundations) that are close to and knowledgeable about both the research and business fabric.

The most successful European examples of university-business relations, such as Warwick or Oxford in the UK, or the Flemish University of Leuven, have bridges. Among us we have foundations, generated by universities, which, in training, have played this role well, but much less so in the transfer of knowledge to the market. Perhaps because they are not companies. On the other hand, we have the technology centres - I use the term in a generic sense - which can undoubtedly accommodate, if they so wish, the logic of intermediation that I am recommending. In any case, the ecosystem of bridging institutions must grow, either so that the existing technology centres adapt to this role or so that the universities, individually or in cooperation, create them.

Knowledge transfer

Bridges can be used by people who carry ideas and expertise. The challenge of knowledge transfer would be more manageable if there were more circulation of talent between university and business, if one and the other were not watertight compartments in terms of professional careers. In the simplest and most traditional university model, there is only one moment of bridge pooling: the university graduate moves to the private sector and stays there for life.

In more advanced models, which would need to be expanded, the professional occasionally does training placements, and also provides training, at the university. But it is in the structure of research careers that we should take a step further. We should promote careers such as that of the researcher who has completed her doctorate at a university, followed by one or two post-doctorates at leading institutions, and then made the leap to a technology centre, which provides her with cross-border knowledge.

And perhaps in the future he or she will make another leap to an executive position in a company. Profiles and careers like this one would benefit the researcher, the university, the research centres, the technology centres, the companies and also the economy.

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