Exploring the black box of academia: University positioning, firm inventiveness and academic opportunities
Doctoral thesis, 2011
This PhD thesis analyzes the role and activities of universities and academics based on three over- arching themes. The first theme addresses how universities differentiate and compete. Changing con- ditions for universities, together with changed expectations on their role in the economy, has provided greater possibilities for specialization and differentiation among individual universities. By drawing on public administrative data, the thesis characterizes the diversity of the Swedish university system and provides an evidence-based interpretation of individual universities’ “strategic position” with focus on their differential ability to attract external research funding. This provides an interpretation of whether and how Swedish universities specialize and compete. The results show that the Swedish university sector is polarized into two groups of research-oriented respectively education-dependent universities. Moreover, the ability to attract competitive external research funding is related to the universities’ po- sition. In light of the national context, the findings suggest that this polarization is not the result of strategic differentiation among Swedish universities, but rather that individual universities are largely locked in their historic positions due to path dependencies and cumulative advantages. This study contributes to the literature exploring the diversity of the European university systems.
The second theme addresses academic inventors’ role in and impact on firm inventiveness. Studying firms’ academic inventions sheds light on the role and impact of academic collaboration, but previous research has not analyzed the inventions resulting from university-industry collaboration. This thesis investigates the relative characteristics of firms’ academic inventions - where at least one academic is involved - as well as in what ways academic inventors affect the technological importance of firms’ inventions by analyzing firm patents. The findings show that firms mainly involve academics in inven- tions within their core technological fields. For a few dominant firms, academic patents on average have lower technological importance as compared to non-academic patents, indicating that the inven- tions resulting from academic collaboration relatively speaking lack direct usefulness for subsequent technological development. The same is however not found for the majority of the investigated firms, for which the results suggest that academic patents on average have relatively more widespread impact (i.e. a wider applicability) as well as higher indirect influence on subsequent technological develop- ment. Antecedent literature claim that these results show a difference in quality between academic and non-academic patents but this thesis proposes that these results should be interpreted as indicating differences in the roles academic inventors play in firms’ inventive activities.
The third theme addresses individual academics and their activities within the three roles of re- search, education and third mission. This theme arises from the conviction that the activities of (indi- vidual) academics are the very foundation of the university and its contribution to societal needs and economic progress. By conducting a literature review in selected journals, the thesis shows that the broader economic literature largely treats universities as a “black box” by focusing upon the outcomes of academic research, but largely ignoring the academic activities leading to these outcomes. More- over, the thesis makes a first attempt to explore this black box, by analyzing the relation among the three academic roles at the level of individual academics. This is achieved through a survey of academics in three scientific disciplines, investigating their perception of how important their prior experiences from the three roles are for identifying and exploiting research, education and third mission opportunities. The findings show that academics perceive that all roles contribute to each other, suggesting comple- mentarities among the roles at the level of individual academics. The study also point to that research is perceived as important for all three roles, while education is considered less relevant for the other two roles. These findings might have important implications for staffing of universities and to what extent different roles should be specialized at the level of individual academics.