May 30, 2024

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Facilitations for the transfer of technology and knowledge in universities

Facilitations for the transfer of technology and knowledge in universities

In recent years, central transportation facilities have been established at most German universities. However, the scope of their tasks and competencies is sometimes very different. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate its economic and social impact.

Although German universities are primarily research and teaching institutions, the scope of their missions extends well beyond these two core areas. In recent years, the “third mission” of Anglicanism has established itself as a collective term for other areas of activity, for which there is currently no generally accepted definition. Depending on the context, they are assigned different functions, which typically include technology and knowledge transfer, but also the social and civil society commitment of universities (Roessler/Hachmeister, 2021). Knowledge transfer is entrenched in all relevant state laws as a responsibility of universities, and the responsible state ministries are pursuing targeted strategies to promote this. However, they sometimes assume a completely different understanding of what knowledge transfer specifically means and what it should include (Möller/Würmseer, 2023).

Ham/Koschatsky (2020) defined the content of technology and knowledge transfer, distinguishing between the following four areas:

  • Basic transportation: This includes scientific publications, lectures, participation in workshops, conferences and other events as well as direct and informal contacts between scientists.
  • Transport via “headers”: These include mutual mobility of staff between the university and the regional economy, in-service training at universities for external students as well as the provision of academically qualified specialists for regional labor markets and the use of students in the regional economy, for example in the context of theses in companies.
  • Interactive research transfer: This includes contract research for companies and public institutions, research collaborations, endowed professorships, as well as the field of patents and licenses.
  • Startups and emerging companies: This refers primarily to spin-offs from universities.
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The first two areas in particular have very significant overlaps with research and teaching, which is not a weakness in the definition, but is consistent with a shared understanding of technology and knowledge transfer. This means that universities can also attribute to this measure measures and facilities that they would have already occupied as part of their regular research and teaching.

In 2021, the German Science Donor Association conducted a large-scale survey of university management on transfer activities ( Burk et al., 2022 ). According to her, more than half of the universities (58.3%) had a targeted transfer strategy, and only 10.4% had such a strategy that was not at least already in implementation. However, these mostly have a boilerplate nature, and only about a quarter of universities systematically record the transfer needs of potential partners. The priorities of the strategies also differ, such that their existence does not allow drawing conclusions about the concrete approach to technology and knowledge transfer.

Most universities organized their transportation area centrally. 72.0% of university management stated that this was centrally located in a high-level unit for the entire university, and for a further 7.1% it was positioned across departments at college level. In 83.5% of universities, a position at administrative level has a clear interest in the topic of transfer, giving it greater weight (Burk et al, 2022). Typically, German universities today have specific facilities for technology and knowledge transfer.

These transport institutions were surveyed about their activities by the Center for the Development of Universities (CHE) in 2020 (CHE, 2020). For this purpose, the FORTRAMA and TransferAllianz networks active in the relevant field were used, so it is likely that the information comes mainly from very active institutions. The responsibilities of the 38 responding institutions varied widely. For example, about two-thirds are responsible for research funding, half for contracts, and a sixth for professional services (figure). They share some of these responsibilities with other higher education institutions. If you highlight more, the image becomes more contrasty. For example, many more transfer units have sole responsibility for inventor contracts than collaboration agreements, and their offerings often include not so much founder training as start-up funding support (CHE, 2020).

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The big problem is that many of the structures created in the transportation area are not sustainably secured. In 2021, university administration estimated that about 42.3% of positions there were funded by third-party funds. In universities, the proportion was more than half, at 51.8 percent (Burk et al., 2021). This is accompanied by a great deal of uncertainty about its continued existence, which is particularly reflected in increased staff turnover. If technology and knowledge transfer is viewed as a task of lasting importance for universities, more stable structures in the long term would be urgently desirable.

Politics attaches great importance to this area. For example, a new institution is currently being created at the federal level, the German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI), which aims, among other things, to promote the transfer of technology and knowledge (BMBF, 2024). Such funding is likely to be particularly beneficial for regional networking between universities, as it creates central contact points for SMEs and other local actors. However, it is not possible to measure whether transportation facilities, as well as transportation activities in general, are actually achieving their objectives without modifying the conceptual framework and collecting relevant data. Monitoring success fundamentally requires a consistent understanding of the objectives being achieved and the minimum indicators for achieving them. The strong overlap between technology, knowledge transfer and the core areas of research and teaching is a major problem, as this can also include activities that need to be evaluated differently.