The very basic research

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Why not boost the university-business collaboration by building an impressive research and development unit of a large company with a known brand in the middle of a university campus? Or moving a university unit in the middle of an industry campus?  This would guarantee material and immaterial exchange between these two worlds. We could be thinking of such revolutionary possibilities at our own home universities.

These inspiring ideas are not from my own University, instead they were presented by Professor Francesco Profumo, Rector of the Politecnico di Torino, the home base of Fiat. And he did not mean Fiat by that suggestion, but a known car brand from USA! Professor Profumo was one of the most inspiring of the invited speakers at the recent EU meeting in Brussels discussing the relationship between the universities, business life and industry. The first one of these ideas is already a flourishing reality in Torino.

I have just arrived from this conference that had the unholy title – from a puritan academic perspective – of ”University-Business Forum (UBF)” where 400 participants, leaders, researchers, practitioners from academia, industry, EU offices, and ministries, for the fourth time, got together to meet the challenge of creating a happy marriage between these two different universes: science and business.

One could see a diagnostic significance in that I was the only representative from my own university, University of Helsinki, even paid the trip from my own project money as the last time when I asked our officials, they did not have the money or interest to cover the costs of such trips. This was nothing new in the present university management mentality: the same happened when I tried to get funding for a trip to Sweden where I participated a Swedish-Finnish collaboration meeting in Stockholm on building projects to study the future biosociety. There is a passivity in participating in this revolution  and some may even think that it is just “efficiency” or a “private interest”. To me it appears as strategic blindness.

So, what more than these stimulating obstacles does an inquiring mind need to be even more motivated to face these inspiring future challenges? The world of science and knowledge creation changes fast and we meet daily the demanding question of what will be the future forms of knowledge, where are the knowledge creating spaces, forms and processes? Where will be the knowledge sources, how are they accessed, how do we create new knowledge together, how is this knowledge shared, valued, applied, protected, and multiplied? For a curious mind, it is impossible to observe this drama as a bystander and remain an academic vegetable.

Not so long ago, it was clear that universities should stick to their basic research. Some other people or organizations could, of course, become interested in their results – because of the promising profit forecasts – and start commercializing the available basic research knowledge and findings. According to this scheme the academic researcher must not be contaminated by this r&d or the “dirty” business processes and the money involved.

Indeed, the word “dirty” is not only imagination in this context as it was clearly and painfully familiar to some of the company representatives who cited it in this recent UBF meeting. The European etymology of this attribute is a mystery to me but clearly it is used to criticize the researchers who work in close connection with companies. When this gloomy attribute is used, in between the lines it carries the message that the basic research money is somehow “clean”, through unknown and mysterious ways.

I have my own experiences in my department of this war of words when doing research on the impact of high-quality magazine paper on reader experience and quality perception when I learned that our research was called, by some colleagues as “toilet paper research”. The company M-real for whom we worked then also had a known and successful brand in this sensitive field although we did not study that quality perception. It is quite clear that there is a very short semantic distance between the words  “toilet” and “dirty” in the minds of such malevolent people and they know it.

An implicit belief in many argumentations is that the geniuses and masterminds live only in the basic research labs. This view has its historical roots, the medieval catholic church is a good example, and it is still typical to separate the history of science from history of innovations or technology. You are not supposed to start your scientific career in a garage but it is a heroic place for an innovative technologists. But from the perspective of the creative brain there is no difference between these acts of inspiration, wisdom and imagination.

According to the orthodox basic research scheme, basic research and applied research (some of my colleagues might even be hesitant to call applied work research at all) live their own lives and comply to their own values. But ever more often it is not so simple.

Researchers are curious, creative and learning creatures and for many of them searching for novelty and new solutions is more important that the breed of “researchers” they belong to. This type of behavior will be amplified by the breakthrough of the new generation Internet, open X,  and the new, border-breaking collaboration possibilities.  Magnificent human and social powers will be released and the question “Is it basic research?” will have no meaning, when the new question will be “Why do you research that?” This has only started to happen but the speed of development is accelerating and one is tempted to see this as our future form of research education and culture.

Why do I worry? My takeaway from the UBF in Brussels was that there is a genuine European science neurosis that expresses itself as a fear that basic research will suffer and will lose its significant position in the world of science.  At the same time, not much worry is present to wonder what is the real mechanism by which, through consult guidance, massive offices, courses, open networks, and well-prepared and bureaucratically functional applications provide EU-money to the research projects.

It is a fear of applied research money, industry interests, and entrepreneurs. It is a similar fear that is entertained by people afraid of immigrants and unfamiliar cultures. In Finland it has been expressed by the Academy of Finland in a statement that our science is too much directed by applied research interests and money.

There are various opinions about Silicon Valley, its history and its present nature, but it is an unavoidable example, especially to us Europeans, of a vital ecosystem where basic research, applied research, r&d, business and marketing have succeeded in living side by side and to benefit from each other.

But Silicon Valley is not only a business and technology environment, it is most of all an environment for people to be inspired, involved, and accepted, but with one condition: you have to have something fresh to offer or promise. There is a real demand of revolutionary knowledge and people are deliciously aware of this. What happens when such a new knowledge is offered is another story.

The Silicon Valley ecosystem is based on the elements that we could adopt in building our future environment for basic research and industry/business collaboration. But this task is not a matter of University-Business collaboration only: it is a question of creating a new form of knowledge life.

These future ecosystems for basic and applied research can be built on the following foundations:

  1. Firm economical and spiritual ground for basic research. Applied research can make profits fast and its economical and human time constants are significantly shorter than for basic research. Because of this, it is necessary to invent business models that guarantee a sustainable position for basic research.
  2. Economic environment that has an ethically sustainable incentive code. This is crucial in integrating basic research and industry/business oriented application work. The challenge of ethics does not concern applied research only.
  3. Experiments with new forms of ownership where material and immaterial capital values are in balance. Today this is not true and anyone with a slightest material investment can expect significant profits while a major immaterial investment (time, knowledge, experience, network) is treated haphazardly. This is an unsustainable situation and needs to be corrected if we aim at creating healthy ecosystems for basic and applied research.
  4. Social platform that encourages cultural mobility within the research community. Dominating paradigms become methodologically, economically, and in their governance closed systems that should be opened by suitable incentive systems.
  5. Educating the industry and business life of the potential, cultures, and development processes in these new environments.
  6. Helping the young generations of students to adopt the multi-dimensional value system that this unavoidable development requires.
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