A few years ago, a revisionist movement began to examine the mission of the university in today’s knowledge society. Beyond the traditional functions of training and research, a new function was added: transferring scientific successes to society at large. Transfer seeks to transform research findings into social, economic and cultural welfare. Jordi Alberch, in his role as Vice-Rector for Research, Innovation and Transfer, is responsible for the University of Barcelona’s strategy in this area. He is also a professor in the Department of Cell Biology, Immunology and Neurosciences in the Faculty of Medicine. He coordinates the research group Pathophysiology and Treatment of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) and the CIBER centre for research on neurodegenerative diseases. Jordi Alberch is also president-elect of the Spanish Society of Neuroscience.
Catalonia and especially the University of Barcelona lead the rankings for scientific output among universities in Spain. The UB is ranked second in the number of publications, after the Spanish National Research Council. How has the UB reached this high position?
In Catalonia, we have a different research system to the rest of the state. Ten years ago, we set up research institutes, for example, that did not exist in the rest of the state. The UB has played a key role in the Catalan research system and this system has been built on an academic foundation: the best researchers in certain disciplines in the universities have been prominent in the institutes. At the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia, for example, you can find engineers from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and biologists and physicists from the UB. This shows a major commitment to knowledge being made here, particularly in biomedicine.
«If we want the model to be sustainable, though, it is necessary to invest because we are now at the limit of our resources»
In addition, we have university hospitals that have research institutes: IDIBAPS is associated with the UB and with Hospital Clínic, and IDIBELL is associated with the UB, Bellvitge University Hospital and the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO). Looking at other areas, we could also highlight the faculties of Physics or Geography and History, the latter being the only faculty to receive two advanced grants awarded by the European Research Council to internationally renowned researchers. Without a doubt, the UB’s most important capital is its people. It is even more to their credit that our professionals have been able to maintain this level of scientific excellence even in the midst of the financial crisis, when the budget allocated to research has been cut so sharply. If we want the model to be sustainable, though, it is necessary to invest because we are now at the limit of our resources.
Within the knowledge ecosystem that you’re describing, we find universities, research centres and, in the case of the life sciences, hospitals. Are all of these agents working together? Is there is a common strategy to coordinate efforts?
Yes. The institute, the faculty of medicine and the hospital work in a coordinated fashion. For example, if we need an electron microscope, IDIBAPS buys it, but puts it on the university’s premises so that we all manage it and make use of it. In terms of equipment, the UB’s Science and Technology Centres bring together high technology. Other universities may have their equipment divided up, but the resources aren’t optimized that way. Our coordination makes us more competitive. We would have liked to collaborate even more, especially in times when the institutes have gone one way and the universities have gone another. Now the crisis has brought us together again.
According to a report by the National Statistics Office, public investment in research has fallen to 2006 levels. What are the negative effects of this decline on science?
Policies are usually based more on votes than on the interests of society. We don’t have to stretch our imaginations too far to see this: we only have to look at what is happening in our environment, specifically where investment in R&D is taking place. It is going up in Germany, holding steady in France and falling slightly in England, but only because it has always been very high. In our case, what is striking is the level of productivity in science that we have been able to sustain in relation to investment, which has been practically zero. And I think that behind this there is a lack of strategic vision.
«We have the best generation of young researchers that we have ever had. And we are under-utilizing them»
The fact that we don’t create and develop new products makes us dependent on other countries; we will only play a commercial role, buying and selling what others develop. In addition, it is a grave error to think that you can temporarily halt investment in research and then, later on, pick up where you left off. Investment is like an escalator: if you get on, you have to go forward; otherwise, you’re falling behind. Now we are at 2006 levels. In the coming year, if we continue on the same path, we’ll fall to 2001 levels. And if it goes on for another year, we’ll be back at 1983. Each year lost is worth five. We have good structures, good equipment and good professionals. Above all, good professionals: we have the best generation of young researchers that we have ever had. And we are under-utilizing them.
If the administrations dedicate few resources to scientific research, is it because there is no societal demand? That is, does the public really see research as essential?
A while ago, a survey was done in Spain to assess the value of R&D in order to find out whether people thought it was necessary to invest in it. Only three regions thought so: Catalonia, the Basque Country and Madrid. In this respect, the commitment made by the Catalan government is crucial. Even the Spanish government has acknowledged as much when granting accreditation to the best healthcare research institutions, the majority of which are Catalan. IDIBAPS was the first to receive accreditation. IDIBELL also figures among the most prominent. The same thing goes for another honour, the Severo Ochoa Award, which recognizes the excellence of certain research institutes: many of them are Catalan. We have succeeded in making Catalonia, as a region, a benchmark within the European research and innovation area.
If people don’t understand the need to make a commitment to the knowledge economy, giving a specific weight to science within the system, don’t those who are responsible for science policy need to work harder at educating them?
«The investment in science is slow, because you never know if or when an idea will pan out»
I completely agree. Politicians typically only think about the period of time they will be in office, and science demands long-term strategies. For example, astronomers—and the UB has very good ones—work on projects that run for twenty or even forty years. The investment in science is slow, because you never know if or when an idea will pan out. But it’s necessary to make the commitment, as the major countries of Europe or the US, Japan, China and so forth are doing. The system shouldn’t change with every legislature. We need to think about the future. We should reverse the trend, because we are training people very well and our science policy should be addressing the long-term.
Is transfer an issue that still needs more work done at the UB? Are there difficulties in turning knowledge into social and economic value?
Definitely. We have a problem and the figures show it: we are highly competitive in the number of scientific publications, while we do not excel at all in the number of registered patents. If we have the scientific capability, we should be able to transfer it. The big question is why this is not happening. Why, if we have the knowledge, is it so hard for us to transform it into value? I think there are two reasons. One is cultural: scientists place more value on publications than on patents and patents take a long time to happen. The other point is how we tackle research. Traditionally, we do basic science without a thought for the practical application that our findings might have.
«We need the support of professionals to identify what can be patented»
In the case of biomedicine—and the approach is similar in other disciplines—this translates into taking more interest in understanding the mechanisms, the reasons that something happens, the why. And perhaps we should turn the process on its head: stop seeking out the mechanisms and start spending time on creating molecules, making a great deal of them and patenting the ones that work. Research does need to develop knowledge, that is basic. But we also need the support of professionals to identify what can be patented. If we bring in commercial agents able to connect what the university can offer with what industry needs, researchers can do their work without having to be so aware of factors unrelated to science. We have to consolidate and improve the structure that we have just created to promote transfer.
What mechanisms does the university have to transfer to society the knowledge and technology generated at the academy? Does the UB have specific tools to facilitate the transfer process?
This is where we have been pioneers: the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation (FGB) was set up when nobody was yet talking about the third mission of the university, which is transfer. The FGB works so that research findings generated at the UB come to market through R&D contracts, through consulting and services, through the protection, valorization and licensing of patents and through the start-up of new knowledge-based companies. We have had the FGB for twenty-five years and it is a structure that works. With the same objective, the Barcelona Science Park was founded and it was also the first institution of its kind. It is a cluster dedicated to value generation, transfer and capture, mainly in the life sciences.
«We should be able to improve the dialogue with the business sector»
We should ask ourselves why, if we have the appropriate structures, we have not succeeded in increasing our share of what is transferred. There is certainly a problem in the local business sector, which is basically made up of small and medium-sized firms that invest almost nothing in R&D. Other European universities have very powerful companies nearby and they collaborate a good deal in research. We should be able to improve the dialogue with the business sector, ascertain their needs and find people who can respond, because we have experts in every area of the university. There is a change of mindset taking place: now we are talking constantly about the need for transfer. At least we have succeeded in making our professionals understand that investment in training and research needs to be returned in some way to society.
Do these initiatives serve to reinforce the idea of the university as an incubator of ideas?
Within Horizon 2020, the EU programme for funding innovation and research projects, one of the key areas is societal challenges. Another key area is collaboration with business. And the last one is excellence, to encourage the most groundbreaking ideas. Major, revolutionary inventions have come from such ideas, ones in which nobody believed at first. Science has to be creative, it has to be imaginative. We cannot limit ourselves to doing what a company needs. That is why we need to be able to strike a balance between research per se and research “on demand”.
What about the new knowledge and innovation community (KIC) in health, which has recently been designated by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology? The community includes the UB as a member. Will it help to boost transfer?
«The EIT-Health will be one of the UB’s top-priority projects»
In a sector like health, there is a highly conspicuous application of knowledge. Creating this core group of major universities, large businesses and major research centres can facilitate the process. We were already working in collaboration—the UB was a member of the League of European Research Universities, which brought together the twenty-one best universities—but this new organization will streamline dialogue. We also need financial involvement. And I understand that it will be much easier to find investment together than individually. Now we are developing projects at the level of our members, who are very strong. The EIT-Health will be one of the UB’s top-priority projects.