In the era of exponential technologies and knowledge economies, the future is no longer a simple linear extrapolation of the past. Countries do not lead by their size and geography but by their capacity to innovate. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Switzerland are a few examples. The history of the United States is rich with lessons. Innovative entrepreneurs built the country over the last two centuries.
Innovation creates jobs, enhances competitiveness, and accelerates economic growth. Two-thirds of the UK’s private sector productivity growth between 2000 and 2007 was a direct result of innovation.
After the Second World War, the US realised before any other nation, the importance of universities and research institutes to nurture innovation and achieve technological advances. Higher education and R&D received generous public and private funding. The policy helped the US build its leadership since then.
Innovation creates jobs, enhances competitiveness, and accelerates economic growth.
However, ideas generated in laboratories need entrepreneurs with the passion and the skills to bring them to life and take the risk to cross the valley of death. This is why most of the universities expose their students to the basic principles of entrepreneurship to help them develop the skills, knowledge and attributes that are necessary to establish a successful business. Curricula are also designed accordingly.
However, the entrepreneurship culture needs more than well-designed curricula to thrive. MIT is one of the most successful examples. Much can be learnt from this iconic institution. It has more than 200 resources dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship and innovation. Each year, the patents produced in MIT laboratories form the basis of around 25 start-ups. Its students can meet and discuss daily with the faculty and researchers who have developed start-ups and gain first-hand experience, which is not available in textbooks. This shapes their mindset, enhances their self-confidence and encourages them to try.
However, the success of universities as sources of innovation that drive competitiveness in the market, has led to an increasing pull from the industry towards less fundamental research. On the teaching front, the focus is shifting away from the traditional aim to achieve deep understanding of fundamental sciences and the laws of nature. The priority is given to developing skills that enable students to solve real problems and give them a competitive edge in the job market.
This pull is strengthened further by the increasing cost of higher education and research and the need of universities to ensure financial sustainability.
This constitutes a serious challenge for universities because fundamental research is essential for innovation and technological progress in the long term. It is behind the major technological breakthroughs of the last century. It took more than hundred years after the development of the fundamental theory of quantum mechanics to build the first quantum computer that is expected to revolutionise the 21st century. Similarly, Einstein never thought that his equations of relativity will be used one day by the GPS to localise objects on the earth with high accuracy.
The writer is Dean of College of Sciences, University of Sharjah