Do young ‘innovators’ flourish in universities?

After nearly a year in existence, one of the regular themes we have been profiling in GlobalHigherEd is the relative weight, or presence, of universities in the global research landscape. See, for example, the 4 August entry ‘Globalizing research: forces, patterns, and collaborative practices‘. Of course universities matter – as they should and always will – but the broad trend that we have noted is that firms, think tanks, NGOs, multilateral organizations, topic-specific expert groups, and so on, are playing an increasingly important role in the production of knowledge, of innovation, of creative impulses.

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting story (‘Fewer University-Based Researchers Appear on 2008 List of Young Innovators‘) which highlights the fact the Technology Review (published by MIT) only lists 17 out of 35 “Young Innovators Under 35” with affiliations to universities.  This number is down from 22 out of 25 in 2007. The other 18 “young innovators” in 2008 are based in firms including Drupal, ICx Technologies, Thatgamecompany, and Twitter. The Technology Review article includes video interviews with other winners as well.

Now, it is easy to be be critical or suspicious regarding this pattern, and even more so as this is but one US-based technology-focused magazine (as proxy measure). Yet universities are becoming, according to increasing numbers of analysts (e.g., Arjun Appadurai), merely one of many sites of knowledge production; a diversification trend that begs the question why?

Is it because of relatively low pay, or rigid institutional structures and lack of opportunity for career progression? Or is it because of ever increasing demands on faculty as mission mandates widen? Or is it due to morale challenges in the context of limited (or declining) levels of state funding? My own university, for example acquires a mere 18% of its budget from the State of Wisconsin despite being a public university with significant state-focused responsibilities.

Or is it because the carrots associated with firms and NGOs, for example, are all too obvious to young researchers? I recently returned from a year in Paris, for example, and was shocked at the lack of opportunity for genuinely brilliant young PhDs. Why wait 10-15 years, if one is lucky, to get the position and space to be somewhat independently creative, when this space is on offer, right now, outside of academe? The creation of an attractive and conducive context, especially for young researchers, is a challenge right now in numerous higher ed systems.

The position of the university as a significant space of knowledge production is not to be taken for granted.

Kris Olds

Striving for creativity: public-private institutes, patches, drugs and sanctuaries

Universities, firms, foundations, philanthropists, and the defense establishment are all striving to enhance creativity, induce innovation, and generate substantial impacts of a variety of forms.

My own university, for example, has just started the construction phase of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID), a $150 million space designed to enhance broad-based interdisciplinary thinking and research regarding developments in the life sciences. This project builds upon UW-Madison’s long-standing strengths in life sciences research, interdisciplinary innovation, and recent advances in stem cell research.

WID is made up of (a) the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (the public arm, with monies coming from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the university, and the state) and (b) the Morgridge Institute for Research (the private arm, with monies coming from the Morgridge family, with links to Cisco Systems).

WID’s governance system will be fused at points, as will the physical creative spaces, though research and development work will be grounded in different legal (public or private) spaces, so as to break free of certain federal restrictions on research practice (e.g., those related to stem cell research), and to generate synergy between public and private research cultures.

Speaking of creativity and research cultures, UC Berkeley Geography PhD student Trevor Paglen has received a lot of recent attention (including a Colbert Report session) regarding his research on the classified dimension of the US Federal Government’s R&D budget. As noted before in GlobalHigherEd, over 50% of the R&D budget is allocated to the Department of Defense’s research programs, dwarfing agencies like the National Science Foundation (which gets a mere 4%).

But, as the New York Times notes, drawing upon Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments data, an increasing proportion of this is classified (hence the “black budget” moniker). Paglen’s research has delved into aspects of the research cultures associated with the highly secretive defense establishment via the use of graphic representations, especially patches (badges).

The patches analyzed in his new book titled I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World are worth examining, for they convey information about the practices associated with building research team cultures in a key segment of US federal government-sponsored R&D. They are also, if you watch the Colbert Report interview, seriously surreal. I must admit never having seen patches created by non-defense scientists.

From the secretive to the psychedelic? Nature released findings this week regarding research on the significant use of cognitive enhancing drugs in the American scientific community, especially:

methylphenidate (Ritalin), a stimulant normally used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder but well-known on college campuses as a ‘study aid’; modafinil (Provigil), prescribed to treat sleep disorders but also used off-label to combat general fatigue or overcome jet lag; and beta blockers, drugs prescribed for cardiac arrhythmia that also have an anti-anxiety effect.

The results suggest that approximately 20-25% of scientists (broadly defined) in the USA might be engaged in the consumption of drugs to improve “focus”, “concentration”, counteract jetlag, and “reduce anxiety”, with variable frequencies of usage, though notable side effects.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a brief review of this issue.

Finally, today’s Guardian has a brief albeit interesting story about the use of the Vassar family’s (of Vassar College lineage) largesse to create a $300m sanctuary – Destination Universitas – in the Nevada desert, a:

private getaway for stressed-out presidents and prime ministers who want to “reconnect with their unique purpose in life”.

The Universitas Leadership Sanctuary is intended as part monastery and part conference centre where the most powerful men and women on the planet can get away from it all with a combination of reading, contemplation and even a spot of gardening.

To remind them of their role as leaders of the planet, the sanctuary will be built in the shape of a four-storey globe on the shores of Lake Las Vegas, a privately-owned lake in the south Nevada desert where temperatures can reach 50C at the height of summer.

Clearly new forms of creativity are being sought after – via the production of new spaces, the creation of team-building iconography in the form of patches, and the consumption of drugs (fueled by the internet which provides access via the postal service). Curiously some of these (including secretive research sites and the sanctuary) are located in deserts, perhaps providing a sign that KAUST in Saudi Arabia has a future despite being a long way from the other sites of knowledge production (UC Berkeley, for example) that KAUST’s leaders seek to link to.

All slightly unsettling, though by design and at a series of different levels. These spaces and practices are also indicative of a yearning for something that is perceived to be absent. But, will the provision of what might be absent, in the drive for more creativity, really make a difference in the end?

Kris Olds

‘Unlocking talent’ to produce the ‘Innovation Nation’…a case of words, words, words, or…?

Last week, John Denham, Secretary for State for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), launched Innovation Nation (IN), a White Paper intended to boost competitiveness and productivity in the UK. Upbeat in style, lofty in ambition, and packed full of strategies, Innovation Nation promises to “unlock the talents of all of its people” to realize the 2007 Sainsbury Report’s challenge – to win the race to top.

The Government’s aim is the make the UK the leading place in the world to be an innovative business, third sector organization, or public service. We aim to build an Innovation Nation in which innovation thrives at all levels – individuals, communities, cities and regions – recognizing the distinctiveness of the four UK nations’ governance and responsibilities.

Innovation Nation is DIUS’s first major policy since it was established as a new department in 2007, following Gordon Brown’s accession to the top job of Prime Minister in the UK. It is also only one amongst a flurry of papers produced by the UK government and allied think-tanks over the past year or two aimed at giving strategic direction to the realisation of a globally competitive, service-based knowledge economy. innovation-nation-2.jpg

GlobalHigherEd has been tracking and commenting on these developments, for they give us an insight into how national governments, like the UK (for other examples, see Singapore, Malaysia, Australia), envision the nature of the global challenges, and how higher education sectors are being mobilized to realize this vision.

Nothing, it seems, is exempt from the government’s Innovation Nation agenda – whether it is in the supply of goods and services, or the demand for them (procurement, commissioned research). And, if the White Paper has its way, innovation (creativity, partnership, knowledge exchange) will be the only game in town.

The Innovation Nation White Paper aims to

  • give around 1000 firms an innovation voucher worth £ 3000 (US$6000) to engage in innovation activity;
  • establish new apprenticeships in the creative industries;
  • facilitate the development of an Innovation Index to be operational by 2010 to measure the UK’s performance as an Innovation Nation;
  • establish a new Innovation Research Centre on innovation knowledge;
  • boost government funding for research in line with the EU’s Lisbon objective of 3% of GDP;
  • encourage Regional Development Boards to capture and capitalize on the unique histories of their regions in ways that are economically productive; and
  • establish a number of new universities.

To realise this new creative economy imaginary, universities will be encouraged

  • to broaden their traditional knowledge bases, to include new disciplines;
  • participate in widening the knowledge exchange agenda in ways that bring the arts and humanities into dialogue with the creative industries;
  • participate in local “partnerships for innovation” with business and venture capitalists to develop local solutions to “local and regional challenges”;
  • make use of model Intellectual Property (IP) agreements to help streamline IP transactions;
  • participate in regionally based enterprise networks, and
  • promote greater take-up of science, technology and mathematics (STEM) studies.

Now the big question here is whether the White Paper will be more than ‘words, words, words’, and impinge upon and transform the current work of universities and their academics? The answer to this question, of course, cannot yet be known for sure. However we can have a pretty good idea of the challenges and the obstacles the government is facing. innovation-nation-3.jpg

Universities and their academics are likely to welcome the Report’s recognition of innovation as more than science and technology, and that new knowledge and inventions are typically not the consequence of one single individual. This wider view has the potential, then, to embrace the larger mandate of universities and the range of disciplines/knowledges it houses. It is thus capable of recognizing the value of transformations in wider systems and practices, and to also value them in the process.

However, despite gesturing at the importance of a wider view of innovation, the White Paper constantly veers in the direction of seeing the ‘value’ of innovation in narrow economic terms (for example, knowledge transfer to industry, partnership schemes with industry, creating higher education as an export industry, spin-out companies, patents, and so on). Academics are therefore right to ask: what about a university’s engagement with those other spheres of life–the cultural, political and social–that do not make a direct contribution to the economy, but which benefit societies in profoundly important ways? DIUS needs to be able to talk about value, not only in ‘use’ or ‘exchange’ terms but also in ways that signal it values those knowledges which generate questions about what it means to be human, how to create societies that are less precarious, how to generate the conditions for dignity, and so on.

Many academics are also likely to take issue with the very limited way in which DIUS intends to measure innovation within the academy – as citations in international journals (largely US, science based journals) which are also being used to generate rankings in League Tables (see our interview with Simon Marginson on this topic). This is a deeply problematic way of measuring and talking about innovation and creativity and one that is unlikely to unlock the talents of the academy for the economy. Why? Because these governance strategies do not encourage risk. Rather, they encourage more conservative and self-preserving strategies, rather than more creative knowledge-building activity.

The DIUS report makes a great deal of inter-disciplinarity to generate new knowledge (see also GlobalHigherEd‘s various contributions this this topic here and here). However, unless things radically change in universities, the current organization of university life tends to reinforce strict disciplinary boundaries rather than to weaken them. Take for instance the Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) in the UK. Academics had to submit their publications to the relevant ‘discipline/field’ panels for judging. The lists of esteemed journals which would more likely generate a higher score also reinforced disciplinary boundaries and disciplinary parochialism. So, while the sentiment of the White Paper is laudable, to generate new knowledge through creatively working across disciplinary boundaries, there are other structures and processes that will need unpicking if we are to create the conditions for more multi/trans/post discipline-based work.

Finally, if DIUS is serious about advancing the “Unlocking Talent” agenda, it will need to: be sufficiently reflexive about the weaknesses in this White Paper; work out how to bring all academics with them; overhaul those structures and processes that impinge on current efforts to produce post disciplinary knowledges; and offer a genuinely wider view of innovation and creativity for society.

Susan Robertson

The NSF’s ‘cool’ project: a charrette assesses interdisciplinary graduate education, with surprising results

kimcoulter.jpgEditor’s note: today’s entry has been written by Kimberly Coulter, the University of Wisconsin-Madison‘s new Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) administrative coordinator. Kim will be developing entries for GlobalHigherEd from time to time, which we are very happy about given her knowledge base. Today’s entry links most closely to be previous entries by Gisèle Yasmeen (‘Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities’), Barbara Czarniawska (‘The challenges of creating hybrid disciplines and careers: a view from Sweden’), and Susan Robertson (‘A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation’).


‘Interdisciplinarity’ in higher education is not only ‘in’—it’s institutionalized. In the last ten years, collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries has been valorized in university strategic plans and research foundation calls for proposals. The buzzword promises to spark scientific breakthroughs and ignite innovations. But how?

Based on the assumption that interdisciplinary collaboration can be trained, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has made a formidable investment in its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program since 1997. Now at 125 sites, IGERT programs offer students interdisciplinary training along with $30,000/year stipends, tuition, and fees for five years of a doctoral program in the sciences. The IGERT program aims:

to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education, for students, faculty, and institutions, by establishing innovative new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

rhoten4small1.jpgBut what, exactly, does such a fertile environment look like? At a University of Wisconsin-Madison conference on The Future of Interdisciplinarity, a provocative keynote address from Diana Rhoten challenged assumptions. Rhoten is Director of the Knowledge Institutions program at the Social Sciences Research Council, and is currently on loan to the NSF as program director in the areas of Virtual Organizations and Learning & Workforce Development for the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. In a previous study of interdisciplinary research centers and programs across higher education (the article can be downloaded here), Rhoten had found that many “interdisciplinary” initiatives failed to reconceptualize disciplinary traditional modes into an integrative model. She observed that real collaboration—defined as working together from start to finish—was rare.

At the Madison conference, Rhoten reported results of a new NSF-sponsored micro-study testing for effects of IGERT training on student performance. The study used an innovative—even ‘cool’—methodology: 48 IGERT and non-IGERT students at early and late stages of their graduate programs were invited to participate in an environmental research design ‘charrette’ weekend at the Snowbird ski resort in the mountains (see below) of Utah. Only after students’ arrival did researchers inform them that the true object of study would be their collaborative processes. Students were grouped into interdisciplinary groups of six: two groups each of junior IGERT students, senior IGERT students, junior non-IGERT students, and senior non-IGERT students. Each group was tasked with working together to produce and present a seven page research proposal on ecosystem services. Students were allowed to do Internet research but could not make outside contacts.

snowbird.jpgAs the students worked, observers made narrative field notes on how they evaluated each other’s ideas and used each others’ talents and skills (both participants and observers were aware of the group’s IGERT identity). At the end of the weekend, ten blind experts from different sectors assessed the groups’ proposals and presentations on intellectual merit and broader impact per NSF standards, as well as disciplinary and interdisciplinary quality. So although this study yielded rich observational data, these data relied on an undeniably small sample of students working with peers at the training stage of their careers.

Still, the results are surprising. Overall, the experts were astonished by the high quality research design proposals. Yet junior IGERT students outperformed the others in every way, followed by the non-IGERT students. Rhoten suggested that as students’ GRE scores had been considered, this disparity could not have been an artifact of previous ability. She summarized the observations thus: the best junior IGERT team had an optimistic leader with gentle critics, and had framed the task as research. By contrast, the senior IGERT students (whose proposal and presentation received the lowest scores) framed the task as collaboration. The senior IGERT students assumed they would perform well, and appeared to enjoy being studied. They discussed how to cope with conflict, yet couldn’t get traction, and their results were vague and incomplete.

She does not conclude that IGERTs are a misinvestment, but rather that these results beg questions: Did overconfidence and familiarity poison the senior IGERT students? Had IGERT training replaced students’ assertiveness and results-orientation with a focus on inclusivity and the cooperative process? These questions, she suggested, may guide us to an improved IGERT program structure. The study’s most striking result was the powerful impression the charrette activity made on both students and researchers. Rhoten beamed about the charrette as a both a methodology and as a learning tool; students, she said, raved about the learning experience. Rhoten ventured that perhaps IGERTs should not take the form of five-year programs, but rather be intensive, collaborative periodic experiences with space and time in between them—like the charrette.

This insight about the charrette is powerful because it reminds us of interdisciplinarity’s goal. The charrette mimics the deadline-driven, temporary, problem-oriented projects for which scientists are being trained. ‘Interdisciplinarity’ is, in its essence, the modus operandi of the flexible, post-Fordist ‘project’ unit of economic action. In their 1976 research on theater production, Goodman and Goodman (reference below) explain a “project” as involving a:

set of diversely skilled people working together on a complex task over a limited period of time…. [especially] in cases where the task is complex and cannot be decomposed in detail autonomously ex ante ‘members must keep interrelating with one another in trying to arrive at viable solutions’.

To trade ideas productively, each participant must bring knowledge from a “home base” and stimulating ideas to the project network. The challenge for institutions is to find a balance between the stability of an institutional context and the rigidity of institutionalized “lock-in.” As economic geographer Gernot Grabher argues in Regional Studies (reference below), “transient collaborative arrangements and more enduring organizational and institutional arrangements” are interdependent—“‘Cool’ projects, indeed, rely on ‘boring’ institutions”.

Clearly, the NSF has the capacity to impact not only the scientific training, but also the attitudes and professional orientations of new generations of scientists. Effective interdisciplinary collaboration needs individuals with rigorous disciplinary grounding, creativity, and communication skills; these require a mix of stability, resources, and conventional training. Yet the current IGERT model, which values the institutionalization of five-year programs emphasizing collaboration, may not be the most effective way to cultivate flexibility and resourcefulness. As the Snowbird charrette demonstrates, perhaps more ‘cool’ projects—transient, face-to-face project-events in inspiring locations—can set the scene for successful learning and quality scientific production.


R. A. Goodman and L. P. Goodman, “Some management issues in temporary systems: a study of professional development and manpower—the theatre case,” Administrative Science Quarterly 21 (1976): 494-501, esp. 494 and 495, as cited in G. Grabher, “Cool projects, boring institutions: temporary collaboration in social context,” Regional Studies 36.3 (2002): 205–14, esp. 207-8.

Kimberly Coulter

A creative combination: adding MBAs and art schools together to increase innovation

Earlier this month Financial Times reporter, Ursula Milton, wrote an interesting article on how MBA administrators are re-tailoring their programs to respond to firms’ needs to be more creative and innovative. The result of this trend has been for MBA administrators and art school chiefs to develop some very interesting collaboration. Introducing design-based principles into business planning and development is expected to ratchet up levels of innovation in firms, while also bringing art schools more directly into the economy.

One collaboration cemented earlier this year in Barcelona was between Art Center College of Design located in Los Angeles, California and ESADE – a leading Spanish business school. In ESADE’s press release, ESADE’s Director General Carlos Losada commented.

Market globalisation is creating unparalleled trends and opportunities, and even entirely new industries. As a result, we need to be at the cutting edge of things to come up with new management models and ways of understanding business. Art Center College of Design, a world leading center on creativity and design, will enable us to develop new multidisciplinary scenarios, and broaden our perspective on originality and innovation.

Art Center’s foray into Barcelona, Europe’s ‘design capital’, is intended to enable Art Center to extend its footprint into the Mediterranean region. This College clearly also has global ambitions, and is an institution worth watching as various strategies are pursued to realize nations’ and regions’ ambitions to become knowledge-based economies.

The FT reports that one of Art Centers’ longest running joint venture is with INSEAD Business School which has campuses in France and Singapore. Since 2005 small groups of design students have been enrolled for a term in one of INSEAD’s strategy electives. There, MBA and design students work together on ‘problem’ – bringing their respective skills to the table and sharing insights from the learning process.

Collaborations like these are intended to produce ‘innovation managers’ – people who can see a gap in the market and creatively design a solution. However, they also suggest that if universities are to respond to the demand for greater levels of innovation – in what recently in the UK the Sainsbury Review called ‘the race to the top’ (see our report last week) – then universities will also be required to think in more radical ways about curriculum pathways that bring together studies in science, technology and creative arts.

Susan Robertson

Fostering creativity in European higher education

Fostering creativity and innovation through education, it would appear, is the sine qua non for the development of knowledge-based economies and societies. National governments, firms, international agencies and regional organizations, like the European University Association (EUA), have all generated a swag of policies and programs intended to contribute to knowledge creation at the high end of the value chain.

The EUA have recently released their report, Creativity in Higher Education, on the EUA Creativity Project that ran over 2006-2007. The report offers an implicit critique of approaches to learning in higher education establishments, arguing that “the complex questions of the future are not going to be solved ‘by the book’, but by creative, forward looking individuals and groups who are not afraid to question established ideas and are able to cope with the insecurity and uncertainty this entails”. The Report also adds that creativity is linked to creative individuals, but it also results from interaction among individuals.

The Report goes on to offer a number of key challenges and recommendations to higher education institutions. These include more interdisciplinary learning opportunities; greater exposure of those within the academy to the outside world and to risk taking; to engage in more forward looking activities rather than being preoccupied with the past; to promote the idea of the university as a learning organization; and to promote creativity through local, regional, national and European policies.

This is a very particular formulation that not only eschews the value of knowing from and about our past, but it is caught in the paradox of how to promote both sharing and competitiveness. Higher education institutions, along with the faculty and students who study in them, are governed to be highly competitive and increasingly individualized through assessment and benchmarks. So, if creativity and innovation is linked to the development of sharing and other cooperative learning practices, then there are major pedagogical as well as governance challenges ahead facing higher education institutions.

Susan Robertson