How universities can boost research uptake

principal laboratory technologist
Copyright: Brian Sokol/IDRC / Panos

Speed read

  • New University of Mauritius office aims to transfer knowledge
  • It plans competitions, public events and media links
  • But activities must be authentic, not merely an advertising campaign

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African institutions can learn from the University of Mauritius’s push to make science visible, says Romeela Mohee.

Knowledge transfer from universities to the world of policy and practice has always been a challenge around the world. In fact, donors see it as a strategic issue, so it has become a source of funding for universities and a policy tool for economic development.

But universities vary enormously in the extent to which they promote and succeed at commercialising academic research.  

How then can knowledge transfer be successful? US author Anthony Robbins has said that “setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible” — and the Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO) at the University of Mauritius is doing just that.

“Carrying out research is not enough on its own. It is through the uptake of that research that the knowledge developed is made visible and effective.”

Romeela Mohee, University of Mauritius

The key is to capture existing knowledge from within and outside the university, encouraging government, industry, NGOs and others to adopt those ideas that are relevant to them.

Higher visibility

Set up last October, the KTO aims to raise the visibility and relevance of the knowledge created by university staff and students. It also aims to forge strong links with sectors such as industry, which can use this research to add value to products and develop more lucrative markets.

Think of it this way: a lit candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Likewise, there is no risk in sharing knowledge — in fact knowledge must circulate. When properly managed, sharing increases its quantity and, obviously, its value.

The KTO therefore acts as a one-stop shop for the protection, exchange and commercialisation of knowledge created at the university. That knowledge includes research, technology, know-how and skills for both commercial and non-commercial application. The office will help showcase expertise, experience and capacities to foster collaboration between the university, industry and communities.

KTO activities for 2015-16

  • Organise themed ‘cafés’
  • Platforms designed to allow PhD students, their supervisors and external stakeholders to work together to initiate different forms of science communication, including ‘street science’, comedy or readings.
  • Set up policy symposiums  
  • As well as a policy dialogue meeting with relevant stakeholders to showcase research results with uptake potential.
  • Organise economic, scientific or literary debates 
  • This could be between research staff to encourage independent thought and vigorous dialogue on social issues. The debates will be designed to teach students a method of critical questioning and learning that can help anyone who seeks new interpretations of evidence.
  • Map industry needs and link them to research
  • As part of this, the KTO will also establish procedures for protecting intellectual property rights when commercialising research products. The objective is to take steps to protect researchers’ ideas to enhance healthy competitiveness.
  • Launch an internet forum
  • This can increase the visibility of research work.
  • Create a section in a well-known newspaper 
  • This should cover the university’s research and will involve sending press releases each month based on major research projects with significant outcomes, and could include items such as a brief interview with the scientist behind the project
  • Release newsletters on research findings
  • Newsletters are an extremely valuable marketing tool: they increase awareness, add value to the university’s services and can aid networking.
  • Make ‘press kits’ available online
  • These will include background material with a description of the university, key facts and figures, biographies of university officials, institutional history and two or three stories on current trends and challenges facing the university.
  • Communicate with the media 
  • For major research projects, communicate with the media when the project begins, at the halfway stage and on completion.
  • Publish booklets 
  • This can showcase the research of master’s and PhD students. The booklets can be handy references for industry and other stakeholders interested in research.
  • Design a questionnaire for PhD students 
  • This will solicit feedback on their experiences as researchers. The findings may be used for quality assessment and for the professional development of supervisors, but may also be of interest to potential partners.
  • Organise a poster competition for PhD students 
  • This could motivate them to design professional research posters and increase the visibility of their work.
  • Establish thematic workshops 
  • Discuss existing research projects, share ideas and discuss proposals for future research topics at the interface between the academic and business worlds
  • Launch a competition 
  • Multidisciplinary groups of PhD students are asked to design and present a project to a panel of academics, business leaders and non-university research centres. The project would address entrepreneurship and innovation from various points of view: conceptual, technological, organisational and economic but also legal. The three best projects would win a prize.

In so doing, the KTO aims to benefit the university by raising its research profile with key external groups such as policymakers. By extension, it will also raise its profile with Mauritian society by fostering better alignment between research, national priorities and commercial opportunities.

Authenticity, not advertising

There are five stages to knowledge transfer: creation, sharing, evaluation, dissemination and adoption. Along these lines, the KTO will, among other things, manage consultancy activities for university academics. It will also provide training, advice and support for staff interested in knowledge transfer.
These activities need to be real, sustainable and authentic, not merely an advertising campaign for the research produced at the university. One way of doing this will be to solicit input on business needs, and use this to inform research, especially at the local level.

Until now, knowledge transfer at the University of Mauritius has been limited to traditional academic channels such as publishing and conferences. The KTO’s mission is to institutionalise the new links with industry and other external groups.

In all its activities, the KTO will ensure that researchers’ intellectual property rights are adequately protected by providing comprehensive information, orientation and resources. For example, a half-day awareness programme designed for students and research staff will be delivered by experts on such rights through lectures and panel discussions on various topics including business competitiveness, patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Why other universities should follow

The world never stands still. During the past decade, for example, there has been a phenomenal surge of interest in innovation. An ever-changing society calls for administrators to take a more dynamic approach to enhance the image and societal role of any research institution, including the University of Mauritius.

Carrying out research is not enough on its own. It is through the uptake of that research that the knowledge developed is made visible and effective.

The KTO is not responsible for providing research staff and external groups with everything they need — but rather for providing a foundation they can build upon to facilitate knowledge transfer.

It aims to ensure that excellence in research uptake is achieved through professionalism and stronger links with communities outside the university at national and global levels.

The University of Mauritius is taking these steps with the aim of becoming one of the leading universities in Africa. Other African universities should take similar steps to increase the visibility and usefulness of their research.

Romeela Mohee is vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. She can be contacted at rmh@uom.ac.mu

This is part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.