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Productive interaction

Books demonstrate that connections between universities and companies make an impact on developing countries

038-041_Livros_234-01Two new books present complementary panoramas about the forging of connections between universities and companies in Brazil. Both works compare Brazil with emerging or developing nations and show that connections among the private sector, universities, research centers and government agencies have multiplied in Brazil, thereby greatly strengthening the country’s innovation system. Such gains, however, are far from sufficient to ensure Brazil the same status already achieved, for example, by South Korea, or the standing soon to be attained by China. Those countries have mobilized groups of researchers from various fields of knowledge to focus on the challenges that face a variety of industries. “Brazil has not stood still, but in comparative terms it is simply holding its own, while other countries have advanced just as far or further than it has,” says Eduardo Albuquerque, a professor at the School of Economic Sciences of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Albuquerque and Professor Wilson Suzigan, from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), are the Brazilian co-editors of one of the books, entitled Developing national systems of innovation – University-industry interactions in the global South, published by Edward Elgar. The work is the result of an international project sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). It compared the strategies adopted by 12 nations to develop their national systems of innovation: Argentina, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, and Uganda. Taking into account the countries’ scientific performances measured in terms of published articles, and their technological performance, evaluated based on volume of patents, it was observed that the countries fall into three groups. Countries like Nigeria and Uganda are in the back of the pack—their productivity is low and interaction between academia and the private sector is limited. Then the Latin Americans, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, as well as South Africa, are ranked in an intermediate technological regime, a level achieved four decades ago but never exceeded. In the front of the pack we find only South Korea, which was in the intermediate group in the 1980s, but has seen the connections between its companies and research institutions multiplied, a trajectory that China, still in the second group, is close to completing.

Suzigan says it is essential to invest in Brazil’s scientific production in terms of its quality, quantity and diversity, factors essential to promoting new interactions with companies. “Science and technology walk hand-in-hand; growth in one depends on growth in the other. The two reinforce each other. In order to have technological development there has to be growth and diversification in Brazil’s scientific production and there especially has to be a relationship between the two components of the national system of innovation. In other words interaction, which is the key question addressed in our book,” he states.

Researchers affiliated with the IDRC project went out into the field in all 12 countries and mapped the connections between universities and companies. In all of them they found examples that contradict the prevailing notion that scientific research in peripheral nations has little impact on private sector development. “On the contrary, both science and engineering are important, even for low-tech sectors. This is the case, for example, with research in mining in Brazil and in Mexico, or foods in Argentina,” says Albuquerque.

038-041_Livros_234-02In the countries studied, people responsible for research and development in companies from different industries were asked about the contribution scientific research has made to their innovation efforts. Researchers employed a methodology created and applied in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. In order to adapt to local realities, the study considered fields of knowledge important to industry in the Latin American countries, such as agronomy, mine engineering and food engineering.

In the Brazilian case, 325 innovative companies in 23 economic sectors made statements about the importance of the research done at universities and public institutions in 16 fields of science and engineering. The findings are visible on a matrix marked as much by points of connection as by empty spaces that reveal the influence that science has on private sector development (see chart). Whenever more than half the companies in a given industry reported that research on a certain subject was “moderately important” or “very important” for its performance, a point of interaction between universities and companies was considered to exist at that site. On the Brazilian matrix, 29 points of interaction were detected in 20 economic sectors. The findings exceed the results of the survey applied in Argentina (15 points of interaction in 19 sectors) and Mexico (23 points of interaction in 15 sectors) and, naturally, rank behind the results obtained in a study conducted earlier in the United States, used as reference. There, 47 points of interaction were identified in 34 sectors.

In addition to the 29 points of interaction, there were 195 points of weaker connection, where fewer than half the companies reported that research in a particular field was at least moderately important. And, at 144 points of the Brazilian matrix the result was equal to zero, i.e., there was no interaction between companies and universities. “The research is important because of the interactions it discovered and also because it shows a lot of empty spaces where there are no interactions,” Albuquerque explains.

Brazilian research in the field of metallurgical, mining and materials engineering has been shown to be important for seven industries: mechanical engineering and agronomy for four industries; and chemistry, computer science and electrical engineering for three industries. The industries with the most points of interaction with a university were mining, food production, paper, petroleum derivatives, metal products, computers, and electronics, electrical equipment and automotive vehicles. “These are industries that rank among the most important in the Brazilian economy. The points of interaction are, in reality, fruit of a long process of building connections between institutions,” says Albuquerque. “But research isn’t being sufficiently promoted in all economic sectors. And there should be more connections among sectors of the economy that are already connected to research in other fields of knowledge.” The researcher warns, however, that interactions are multifaceted and not all facets can be captured. “I met a researcher from UFMG who has direct interaction with an American multinational that does not pass through the Brazilian affiliate. Insertion into international networks still needs to be measured.”

038-041_Livros_234-03The second book La transferencia de I+D, la innovación y el emprendimiento en las universidades (R&D Transfer, Innovation, and Enterprise at Universities), makes a baseline comparison among the Ibero-American countries—Spain and Portugal and the nations of Latin America—emphasizing the evolution of the transfer of technology to companies and civil society in the first decade of the 21st century. Guilherme Ari Plonski, coordinator of the Center for Technological Policy and Management of the University of São Paulo (USP) and responsible for the chapter on Brazil, identifies a change in mentality. “Throughout the period studied, innovation became the focus of concerns by the government, research-intensive universities, and some business sectors,” says Plonski. “The stimulus for entrepreneurship took root in the discourse by the universities, even though the intensity of the practice is not always consistent with that discourse.”

Data from the new book show that institutions of higher education have diversified the structure that they built to support the transfer of knowledge. The number of technology innovation centers in Brazil rose from 11 in 2000 to 127 in 2012. The Innovation Act, passed in 2004, compelled scientific and technological institutions to have such structures available to handle their innovation policy and manage their intellectual property. Similarly, the number of company incubators at institutions of higher education increased from 39 in 2000 to 134 in 2010, and the number of science and technology parks climbed from 10 to 28 in the same period.

In a diagnosis that converges with the findings of the book edited by Albuquerque and Suzigan, Plonski says that interactions between universities and the productive sector need to increase. He points out that despite progress, the Brazilian system of innovation remains fairly heterogeneous. When it comes to investing funds, for example, he mentions the example of São Paulo, a state in which, in contrast with what happens in the other states in Brazil, more than half the research and development effort is made by companies, rather than by the government. “The book portrays the situation of countries as a whole, but I have tried to show that realities are different at the subnational level.” The performance by São Paulo is also distinctive in terms of other indicators. On the list of the universities in Ibero-American countries whose research is most often mentioned in applications for patents in the United States, USP appears in first place, with 783 documents cited, followed by the universities of Barcelona (609) and the Autonomous University of Madrid (581). Unicamp ranks 9th (346 documents cited).

038-041_Livros_234-04One characteristic of the Ibero-American countries is that the great majority of applications for patents are filed by non-residents, usually foreign companies that want to protect their products in the markets of the region. In Spain, for example, 98% of patents filed for in 2011 originated with non-residents. Next came Mexico (92%), Argentina (86%) and Brazil (75%). In absolute numbers of patents granted to residents, which usually result from domestic research and development, Spain ranked first in 2011 with 2,582. Brazil came in second, with 725 patents. But then, in the ranking of patents granted (to both residents and non-residents) per million inhabitants, Brazil with 26, appears in fifth place, ahead of Spain (552), Mexico (141), Chile (77) and Argentina (40). Although it loses only to Spain in number of scientific publications (39,000 articles in comparison with 55,000 from the Spanish in 2001, according to the Science Citation Index), the Brazilian situation is less favorable when we look at the number of publications divided by millions of inhabitants. Brazil ranks seventh, behind Spain, Portugal, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina.

The book shows that Ibero-American countries are poorly positioned when compared with developed countries. “But, in talking about Latin America and the Caribbean, we have to distinguish Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile from the others; they concentrate about 90% of the scientific and technological activity of the region,” says Senén Ameneiro, a researcher from the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain and president of RedEmpreendia, the network responsible for compiling the book. He believes that continued investment in education and research would be the appropriate way to combat the lag, as seen in the case of South Korea, which even during the crisis of the late 1990s increased its investments in education and is now reaping the benefits.