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Developmental universities must commit to putting knowledge at the service of social development, argue Rodrigo Arocena and Judith Sutz.

Weak demand for knowledge is a serious problem for social and economic development within developing countries.

In response, 'developmental universities' — institutions that combine teaching, research and partnership building to promote development — should foster socially relevant knowledge demand.

Partial evidence from Uruguay suggests that they can cope with such a task.

Building demand

A country's propensity to search for new or better ways of solving problems depends on the perceived rewards of finding solutions — in other words, on the level of knowledge demand.

Development strategies have always depended on importing knowledge. But this is not sufficient, because applying knowledge efficiently usually also requires building capabilities to generate knowledge. And being able to produce knowledge to solve problems is also important because solutions found in rich countries may not be affordable or effective in poorer contexts.

To ensure that knowledge is applied properly, developing countries need a policy for building the capacity to generate it, and another aimed at ensuring that the capacity will be put to work. This becomes more important as the production and application of knowledge to solve problems grow increasingly intertwined.

Promoting an effective combination of those two policies is a fundamental task for a developmental university. One way of doing this is to build research programmes that meet not only market demand, but also foster social demand for home grown knowledge — this is key to ensuring that capacities will be used.

Developmental universities have three simultaneous missions: teaching, research, and cooperating with others for development. The institutions and social actors working to generate and apply knowledge are the components of a country's innovation systems — and the strength of such systems depends strongly on the degree of cooperation among those components.

Enhancing such cooperation requires upgrading the scientific input into every useful activity, from health to housing, food production and distribution, and managing public services. Developmental universities can only exist if they contribute to this. Uruguay's University of the Republic (UdelaR) has made a modest effort in this direction. 

Research for social inclusion

In 2003, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, UdelaR launched a new experimental call for research projects, named Research for Social Emergencies, that aimed to do just that.

One of the three projects funded under this call — which aimed to evaluate a policy to provide lunch in public schools — had a lasting effect, fostering a fluid dialogue between researchers and policy makers. Two years later the research team became actively involved in designing a national plan to attend to social emergencies.

The limited experience gained from this first call opened the way to more ambitious efforts when, some years later, UdelaR was pushing towards a reform aimed at widening access to higher education and fostering its role in development.

A new call for projects — Research Oriented towards Social Inclusion — was issued in 2008 and focused on health, digital inclusion and problems in socially deprived neighbourhoods. But first, special university teams carried out extensive interviews with the public to identify their knowledge demands. The results of these interviews were presented and discussed in a workshop bringing together researchers, policy makers and the general public.

More than thirty research proposals were presented. Half of them addressed health problems, including proposals to develop cheap artificial skin, and a kit for diagnosing streptococcal infections in women giving birth. The programme funded thirteen projects. 

Lessons learned

The experience highlighted the challenges of identifying socially-driven knowledge demand. It involves processes of interactive learning between very different groups of people — and these processes need specific support.

The next edition of the programme, implemented in 2009, received greater financial support from the university, including funding to identify knowledge demand.

Interviews with the non-academic stakeholders became a requisite part of the process. This is because prior experience showed that the strength of the demand for solutions and of commitment to implement solutions, if any, were fundamental to the success of the projects.

In this call, health was again the best represented area, probably because the demand for knowledge about health concerns is clearer than it is for other areas. Proposals included producing a portable kit to help measure lead contamination in both children and workers, which is required by law but rarely enforced due to difficulties in implementation.

The commitment to put knowledge at the service of social development should characterise developmental universities. It includes supporting research agendas that take note of areas where demand for knowledge is high but frequently neglected.

If these demands are efficiently met, those working to promote innovation and the general public will better understand the connection between generating knowledge and solving social problems. That will increase knowledge demand. If this happens, a country's capacity to generate and apply knowledge will be better used — and better appreciated.

Judith Sutz is a social scientist, professor and academic coordinator of the Scientific Research Council at the University of the Republic, Uruguay. Rodrigo Arocena is professor of Science and Development and rector of the university.

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