Major thirst for knowledge on innovations
17 December 2010
The term ‘innovation’ was almost never mentioned in the public debate a few decades ago, but now it is heard in a wide range of different contexts. In this year’s budget bill, the word came up 108 times in the section on industry, 62 times in the section on education and research, and 26 times in the financial plan.
Charles Edquist, head of LU’s innovation research centre, CIRCLE, gives this account of a search in Word on the budget bill. He is of course pleased: the term innovation could hardly be hotter.
“There is a huge thirst for knowledge about this field, particularly on an international level. When Sweden and China celebrated the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, they chose to organise an innovation forum in Beijing”, he explains.
The Linnaeus funding from 2006 has been used to strengthen the research environment and establish three ‘research platforms’ focusing on how knowledge is produced, how knowledge is converted into innovations and how innovations are converted into growth and prosperity. These three issues can then be studied from different angles. For example, they can include what skills and what regional, industry and national systems are required for the different tasks.
CIRCLE is a physical centre rather than a virtual one, housed in a brick building at Sölvegatan 16. The physical community provides opportunities for coffee break chats, seminar discussions and corridor conversations that are not possible to have over the Internet, according to Charles Edquist.
“We try to practise interdisciplinarity in most of our activities. There is major potential for cross-fertilisation between research on innovations, on entrepreneurship and on R&D; but this requires intensive interaction and communication.”
Another success factor is diversity. CIRCLE’s employees represent 12 subjects and come from 14 countries, with English the working language. Six out of ten were recruited from abroad.
“When we have a position vacant, I email the vacancy notice to my international contacts. Then people become aware of it within a large part of the innovation and innovation research community”, says Charles Edquist. He asks an international assessment panel for advice before every appointment, even though the rules and regulations do not always require him to.
Professor Edquist sees clear demands as a third success factor. CIRCLE’s staff are expected to show off their achievements by publishing their work, getting high citation figures and attracting research grants. Every annual report contains detailed lists of every individual’s results in these areas.
The 2009 annual report also shows some of the breadth of the research. The work published is on such diverse topics as the creative class in European cities, LU’s role in Skåne’s innovation system, entrepreneurs’ attitudes to failure, ethical entrepreneurship, innovation systems in developing countries, knowledge flow in Medicon Valley and the informal venture capital market in Europe.
The fact that Sweden pumps a lot of resources into research and development but gets quite little out in the form of new processes and products is a problem that has long been discussed. This is referred to as the ‘Swedish paradox’ and was first shown by Charles Edquist and Maureen McKelvey (now a professor in Gothenburg) almost 20 years ago. However, since then the return on the Swedish R&D investments has improved.
“Postdoctoral fellow Jon Mikel Zabala and I have shown in another published study that the results have improved significantly during the 2000s. We don’t yet know why this is. It has been a huge job to go through masses of data just to show that this is the case”, he says.
CIRCLE’s researchers are often engaged by national and regional authorities and private companies. Three of them (Jerker Moodysson, Martin Henning and Magnus Nilsson) recently wrote a book about the business sector and the innovation system in Skåne on behalf of Region Skåne, and Charles Edquist took part in an evaluation of Finland’s national innovation system last year.
“We could probably make a living out of being consultants, but then we would have to leave the University. Our main task here is theoretical and empirical research, even if we also interact with society as far as possible”, he says.
With glowing reports from Vinnova’s evaluation (see fact box) and with major grants from both the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova, are there any clouds on the horizon for CIRCLE? Yes, there are in fact two; they concern research studies and funding.
The Vinnova evaluation noted that CIRCLE had the best researchers in Sweden and excellent supervisors in the field. Nonetheless, CIRCLE is not allowed to offer any research studies. Because the centre is part of the ‘tenth faculty’ within LU, where interdisciplinary centres of various kinds have been grouped together, CIRCLE does not have the right to award degrees, which its management views as absurd.
“Now that LU has been given greater freedom in the autonomy bill, the University would be able to solve this problem by creating a new horizontal faculty for interdisciplinary research”, says Charles Edquist. “If LU is going to be organised into faculties, then there should be a faculty that can house these types of cross-boundary activities that don’t fit into the traditional faculties.”
When it comes to funding, Professor Edquist is naturally pleased to have the Linnaeus and Vinnova grants that are CIRCLE’s main source of funding. However, when these finally run out, the University must increase its contribution to the funding so that key individuals do not start looking to leave Lund. He says that it is not sustainable to have direct government funding which, as at the moment, only covers 10 per cent of costs.
CIRCLE stands for the Centre for Innovation Research and Competence in the Learning Economy. It is an interdisciplinary centre with researchers from various faculties and 12 disciplines. The term ‘innovation research’ encompasses research on innovation systems and innovation policies, on entrepreneurship and SMEs, and on organisation, finance and policies in connection with research and development.
CIRCLE was started in 2004 with grants from the research foundation Vinnova. Just two years later the centre received one of Lund University’s Linnaeus grants for 2006, which provides support for CIRCLE for 10 years.
The halfway evaluation of the Linnaeus grants will be carried out next year. However, CIRCLE and eight other centres for innovation research in Sweden were evaluated in the spring by an international panel appointed by Vinnova. In that evaluation, CIRCLE came in first place and received the highest rating for its research, which was classed as “outstanding, at the forefront of international research”. As a result of this good result, CIRCLE has now been given a new six-year grant from Vinnova, with additional funding from LU.
With its 35 staff, the centre in Lund is the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries and one of the largest in Europe. Five new posts have also recently been advertised – two permanent posts as senior lecturer and professor, and three four-year appointments as research fellows.
- Ingela Björck