49.2 Universities and transition to sustainable development: lessons from the Costa Rican case

Jeffrey Orozco , Cinpe, Universidad Nacional Costa Rica, Santa Barbara, Heredia, Costa Rica
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  • Universities and transition to sustainable development: lessons from the Costa Rican case

    Abstract for JAOCC, Aalborg, 2009

    The rhythm and direction of innovation and technological change are key factors to determine the possibilities of a country to get the challenges of sustainable development. The challenges are multiple and diverse. Some are related to the economic dimension and in a clear link with growth. But other challenges are related with social issues, including health, income distribution, and access to opportunities, education and similar goals. The eco-system is also part of the dimension. The study of development is not an abstract task. Actually, development in general and more concretely the technological and economic progress of a country is normally based on the system of innovation. Stressing on the necessary transformations it is possible to establish the link between the debate about sustainable development and the debate about systems of innovation. Actually, most of the key questions in the study of systems of innovations are related to the explanation of why nations differ in economic performance, including the environmental dimension.

    Different actors play a role in the transition process. For example, universities are relevant components of the system of innovation. In countries where most of the firms are small or medium size, universities can be very useful for the development of technology. They can contribute to de design and transfer of technologies with better environmental performance in sector where firms have difficulties to develop this kind of technologies. However, the knowledge developed by universities is useful for firms only in certain conditions. In order to appreciate the role of universities and public research centers on innovation processes by firms, it is important to have a systemic approach. It is essential to note that universities and public labs are not only the source of personnel trained in science and technology fields. In a number of industries they are also a source of scientific and technological knowledge relevant to the innovative activities of firms, and research and problem solving capabilities that can be directed to problems relevant to firms. These knowledge and capabilities provide a broad support to the innovative activities of business enterprises. In turn, firms, while trying to identify solutions for technical problems and bottlenecks in the context of their innovative activities, provide universities with demands that may lead to new research questions, scientific findings, dissertations, papers and others.

    A relevant finding is that most of the effort of R&D in the Costa Rica is done by universities. Firms also have R+D but few of them have a formal department. Because of that, it is crucial to understand new mechanisms of contribution of universities to industrial R&D. Firms in Costa Rica have concentrated in few objectives for the interactions with universities. The main have been to contract research that firms can not develop and to contract useful activities into the innovation processes by the firms. Support in processes of quality control has been also relevant. Firms recognize that university’s laboratories and other resources that can be very useful to facilitate innovation processes for firms. However, the interactions between universities and the industry are still relatively week. The paper reports the results of two surveys, one to researchers in universities and public research institutes and one to firms, both in Costa Rica. Some results indicate that the key channels through which university research impacts industrial R&D include published papers and reports, public conferences and meetings, informal information exchange, and consulting. The main mechanisms are training and information. Although the average of firms having interactions with universities is low; most of the firms with this kind of interactions are satisfied with the results.

    The barriers for stronger interactions are different for firms than for researchers. Firms mention mainly a week joint agenda, but researchers mention that bureaucracy at research centers and universities hinder the interactions with firms.  The fact that most of the firms in Costa Rica has innovation activities aimed mainly to incremental innovations -as improvements in products and small changes in processes-, can also be a factor hindering stronger efforts joint projects in R+D. To complement the analysis, the paper report on several successful cases on the interactions between universities and the industry, especially in biotechnology projects. One conclusion is that Costa Rican universities are contributing to the development of local capacities for sustainable development, mainly for their contribution of scientific and technological knowledge. However, the links with industry are still weak and hindered by several obstacles. Researchers in universities are improving their capabilities, but the amount of researcher and the time they have for research are not enough. A strong difference with respect to universities in developed countries is that there is not a culture of patenting. The lack of patenting has not been compensated by other kind of institution to promote the appropriation of the results of R&D projects. This lack of institutions is an obstacle for the interaction with the industry because both, universities and firms, feel uncertainty and distrust about the appropriation of results. Firms are reluctant to finance joint R&D projects with universities. The mechanisms of technological transfer are limited then to few general strategies, as seminars, exchange of free information and similar, but not to joint projects. In this context, universities should find new strategies for interaction with the industry if they want a stronger contribution to the transition to sustainable development. The contribution is crucial in Costa Rica; with a predominant presence of small a medium firms without R&D departments.