Innovation in Arts and Humanities Paper

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  • Arts & Humanities in Higher Education

    2015, Vol. 14(1) 924

    ! The Author(s) 2014Reprints and permissions:

    DOI: 10.1177/1474022214533890


    Is innovation a usefulconcept for arts andhumanities research?

    Magnus GulbrandsenNordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and

    Education (NIFU), Oslo, Norway; TIK Centre for Technology,

    Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, Norway

    Siri AanstadNordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and

    Education (NIFU), Oslo, Norway


    This article argues that innovation may constitute a useful perspective on the link

    between society and arts and humanities research. Innovation is here seen as some-

    thing new put into practical use, and there are two reasons why it can be relevant for

    humanities. First, there has been an expansion of what innovation refers to; it is now

    commonly used for non-economic change processes in public, private and non-profit

    organisations. Second, arts and humanities are not unique in their contribution to

    innovation: good teaching, research, dissemination and external relations are the central

    contributions for all university disciplines. But this does not mean that it is easy to

    promote innovation at universities in general and in arts and humanities in particular.

    Through examples from a historical case study at the University of Oslo, different

    tensions are analysed related to indicators, infrastructure, teaching versus research

    and quality. All these need to be handled in such a way as to avoid fruitless conflicts,

    misunderstandings and poorly designed policies and university strategies.


    Arts and humanities research, bias, employability, indicators, innovation, universities

    Introduction the plea for innovation

    Innovation is one of the global buzzwords of our time, and the phenomenon hasgained a lot of scientic interest (Fagerberg, 2005). Firms hail it, universities tell

    Corresponding author:

    Magnus Gulbrandsen, University of Oslo, PO Box 1108, Blindern, Oslo 0317, Norway.


  • success stories about it and policymakers want to encourage it for the good ofsociety and the economy. Innovation is invoked as an imperative also for aca-demics in universities (Mowery and Sampat, 2005). A simple denition of innov-ation is that it is something new that is put into practical use. The term itself emergedas an explanation for dierences in economic performance and social developmentbetween countries and between industrial sectors (see Fagerberg, 2005). Early stu-dies were in particular oriented at technological change and technical disciplines(Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994), but later, many other social and cultural phenom-ena related to learning and competence building in a much wider sense have beenincluded (Lundvall et al., 2002). Higher education institutions (HEIs) and theiremployees are often given a prominent role in innovation, and policymakers havedemanded more relevance and more social and industrial engagement from them(Mowery and Sampat, 2005).

    It is fair to claim that in many countries, some arts and humanities scholars havebeen confused, provoked and discouraged when confronted with these demands andmaybewith the innovation concept itself. They seem tond little relevance of the termfor their own professional activities; they deem that it is mostly related to the hardsciences; or they see the plea for innovation as yet another sign of lack of respectand understanding for their disciplines special character (e.g. Belore, 2015;Benneworth, 2015; Olmos-Penuela et al., 2015). A conventional view equatesinnovation with technical and industrial collaboration and economic growth, evi-denced by patents and creation of rms, which are rare and unimportant in arts andhumanities research (Abreu and Grinevich, 2013; Bullen et al., 2004; Hughes et al.,2011).

    This article challenges the conventional view and argues that innovation can be auseful concept for arts and humanities scholars, not least because it is closely relatedto what they are already doing. The strong current attention to it may even constitutea great opportunity for them to gain support among policymakers and to improvetheir societal impact (Bullen et al., 2004; but see Belore, 2015, for a word ofcaution). However, it is crucial that innovation processes and the parts that HEIscan play in them are properly understood.Misunderstandings about such issues arewidespread, and innovation is often mistakenly equated with creativity and entre-preneurialism. There is a gap between what research on innovation and HEIs con-tribution to it tells us and widely held beliefs in policy and academic communities.This article aims to ll the gap by using conceptual and empirical investigations of so-called universityindustry relations, which deal with how HEIs interact with theirsurroundings, supportedby examples fromahistorical case studyofNorways largestuniversity inOslo. Themain contribution of the article is to illustrate the tensions thatemerge when applying an innovation perspective to the humanities and under whichconditions it is useful to do this. The empirical foundation is a 3-year research projecton the public value of arts and humanities research in Norway involving analysis ofthe public debate and public documents, interviews and workshops and a historicalinvestigation of theUniversity of Oslos engagement in innovation between 1960 and2011 with comprehensive archival material.

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  • After a brief discussion of how innovation can be dened, the subsequent sec-tion deals with the role of HEIs in innovation. What are the main activities andchannels of interaction, and how do they work for the humanities? The ensuingsection discusses some of the typical biases in practical attempts to promote innov-ation. Using a comprehensive historical case study of the University of Oslo inNorway, activities, tensions and biases are further discussed in the section that thenfollows. The nal conclusions draw out some preconditions for the usefulness ofthe innovation concept for the humanities, including dealing with tensions relatedto quality, indicators and the teaching-research balance.

    The condensed literature review begins with a discussion of the innovation con-cept with emphasis on how the term has been expanded to encompass a wide set ofphenomena. The main section deals with the role of HEIs in innovation, includinga short review of common misunderstandings seen in HEI and policy initiatives.Often, misunderstandings seem to be due to narrow or biased views of innovation.

    Defining innovation

    There are many classications of innovation in the literature, but the simple one ofsomething new that is put into practical use may cover them suciently(Fagerberg, 2005). This means that new research results, discoveries and break-throughs are not innovations in themselves. For science-based innovations, there isoften a lag of decades between discoveries and practical applications, and the pathbetween the two is lled with strange turns and loops (Rosenberg and Nelson,1994). Even technological and natural science research is rarely a direct drivingforce in innovation processes (Kline and Rosenberg, 1986), and it can initially beassumed that this is also the case for social science and humanities research.

    The current perspective on innovation furthermore favours a wider set of phe-nomena than new technological products and ways of making them. Innovationresearchers have consistently shown how innovation can be found in low-techindustries, service industries and outside of private rms (Pavitt, 2005; Tidd andBessant, 2013). Public sector and non-prot organisations and services can berenewed, reshaped and improved in ways that t the basic idea of innovation assomething new implemented in practice (Tidd and Bessant, 2013; Windrum andKoch, 2008). This perspective is not least seen in Europe and in the InnovationUnion strategy from 2010, establishing a public sector innovation scoreboard, aresearch programme and an international prize for public agencies (EU, 2013).Innovation is furthermore no longer seen as something that needs to imply com-mercial value. For example, the term social innovation is often used to denoteactivities in which the social aims take priority (there may be economic aspectsinvolved), such as fair trade, e-learning and microcredit in poor countries (Sharraand Nyssens, 2010). The implication is that innovation has become more relevantfor all scientic disciplines, not least the humanities, where many of the graduateshave traditionally found work in public and non-prot organisations.

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  • It should also be mentioned that many organisations struggle to achieve innov-ation (Christensen, 2011). It is often met with resistance and understood poorly(Pavitt, 2005; van de Ven et al., 2008). Innovation processes are risky, uncertainand with political characteristics; they require support, championing and alliance-building. Societies that want to promote innovation resulting in improved publicservices, new jobs in the private sector and strengthened social capital, need can-didates from the education system good at dealing with these types of processes.Innovation capacity therefore requires a fundamental understanding of the humandimension to change and that is partly where the humanities and the highereducation system more broadly comes in.

    HEIs and innovation

    As seen so far, scientic research and higher education candidates matter forrenewal in industry, the public sector and non-prot organisations. But what ismore concretely the role of universities and other HEIs in innovation? Generallyspeaking, there is a bias in the academic literature and policy documents in favourof research activities, based on a awed belief that scientic results are the primaryinput into innovation processes. In particular, commercialisation of academic sci-ence through patenting, licensing and the creation of spin-o companies is anactivity that receives too much attention compared to its volume and signicance(Abreu and Grinevich, 2013; Bekkers and Freitas, 2008; Mowery and Sampat,2005). But this form of contribution to innovation is an exception and seldomhappens with much success outside of a minority of well-funded HEIs. From aninnovation perspective, training of a nations future workforce is a more crucialactivity than basic research. Common to both these activities, however, is that thecontribution to innovation is indirect; teaching graduates who later becomeinvolved in innovative work and providing for a general public knowledge thatcan be accessed by anyone with a problem to nd potential solutions(Gulbrandsen, 2011).

    Yet, there are strategies where HEIs can get involved more directly, and theindirect role they most often play does not mean that innovation happens auto-matically or uninuenced by HEI actions (Rasmussen et al., 2013). Innovation isa phenomenon that largely takes place outside of universities and colleges inprivate rms, non-prot organisations, civil society and the public sector. A generalrecommendation from the innovation literature is therefore that HEIs need to beopen to many kinds of societal interaction to become engaged in innovation pro-cesses (Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). The idea is not primarily that HEIs shouldbecome better at transferring their results and perspectives, but rather that a con-tinuing interaction may lead to subtle changes in the way teaching, research anddissemination are carried out. Interaction with society can be benecial to researchquality: for example, academics with industrial or other societal collaboration gen-erate more, and more highly cited, publications (e.g. Gulbrandsen and Smeby,

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  • 2005; Larsen, 2011), as long as extreme levels of commercial or societal engagementare avoided.

    The universityindustry relations literature has conceptualised interaction asinvolving various channels of communication between the two parties (Bekkersand Freitas, 2008) leading to dierent forms of impact (Spaapen and vanDrooge, 2011). Some channels are indirect, for example when users read publica-tions by academics, which is a very common form of knowledge exchange.Collaborative research is an example of direct interaction. Empirical investigationshave shown that academic researchers and industry respondents are very much inagreement about the most important channels: regular scientic publications andpopular science publications, followed by transfer of students and other personnel(Bekkers and Freitas, 2008). Conversely, patenting and other direct commercial-isation activities are rarely deemed crucial, whereas collaborative research andvarious types of consultancy and advice are seen as moderately important.Impacts are often indirect and happen after a considerable time lag (Spaapenand van Drooge, 2011). Although one should not underestimate tensions betweenacademics and societal actors concerning aspects such as time frames and perspec-tives on utility, the central expectation from key societal actors is still that aca-demics should concentrate on high-quality teaching and research (Mowery andSampat, 2005).

    Traditionally, the most innovative HEIs have been quick to change teachingprogrammes and curricula in response to new societal needs, not least in the engin-eering disciplines, mostly related to developing specic subjects rather than anexplicit emphasis on innovation courses (Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). In recentyears, there has also been an increase in courses for social science and humanitiesstudents in innovation and entrepreneurship, but the courses are often small, andtheir eects seem to be limited (Gulbrandsen, 2011). One important context forchanges in curricula and research orientation is that the capacity and capabilities ofexternal stakeholders are in many cases a more severe bottleneck in fruitful know-ledge exchange than the relevance of the academic activities (Cohen andLevinthal, 1990; Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). Given that the challenge of innov-ation processes is rarely a lack of ideas (they tend to proliferate) but the corres-ponding ability to put ideas into practice (van de Ven et al., 2008), courses focusedexclusively on creativity may have little impact.

    Are these observations and ndings also relevant for the humanities? All scien-tic elds make some claims to exclusivity, and there are certainly dierencesbetween them. But when it comes to societal engagement, a main argument isoften that the hard sciences, unlike the humanities, are seen to yield immediatebenets and engage in frequent direct interaction with external stakeholders(cf. Olmos Penuela et al., 2015). The brief literature review in this article showsthat this is not the case. The indirect and long-term nature of scientic impact andthe low importance of technology transfer and commercialisation are shared by allscientic disciplines, making it more dicult for arts and humanities representa-tives to retreat from discussions about innovation. On one hand, this constitutes an

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  • opportunity to discuss the societal relevance of arts and humanities in new waysand to highlight communalities across the disciplinary spectrum. On the otherhand, this is also challenging, as it raises questions about how the innovationand societal engagement challenges are handled.

    Linkages between HEIs and society vary with sector, academic discipline, typeof institution and many other aspects, including individual preferences somesimply nd it more stimulating to engage heavily in activities leading to practicalutility (Gulbrandsen et al., 2011). Their academic careers often look quite dierentfrom that of some of their peers. We know that arts and humanities researchers arerelatively speaking more often involved in consultancy, popular science publishingand public debates in the media and elsewhere, and comparative investigationsrefute the notion that they are less relevant (e.g. Abreu and Grinevich, 2013;Hughes et al., 2011; Olmos-Penuela et al., 2015). But these disciplines are alsocharacterised by large variations in innovation and societal engagement downto the individual level. This heterogeneity may be one of the main reasons forthe oversimplications and misinterpretations encountered in public policies anduniversity strategies.

    Bias in HEI innovation policies and strategies

    In other words, the universityindustry relations literature suggests that successfulinnovation strategies often involve academic institutions concentrating on goodresearch, teaching and dissemination and striving for a certain degree of willinginteraction with relevant societal agents. This is to a large degree based on empir-ical investigations of how innovations actually happen instead of ideologicallyinfused perspectives on what universities should (and should not) be. But universityadministrators, academics and policymakers often seem to have other more nor-mative perspectives in mind when wanting to promote innovation and increase thesocietal relevance of universities, leading to various biases. The following discus-sion is largely based on the authors engagement with policies and strategies in theNordic region since the mid-1990s.

    One common strategy is to try to emulate what has happened elsewhere, butwithout thoroughly understanding the context and the factors leading up to thesuccess. Waves of legislative changes, science parks, biotechnology research centresand technology transfer oces (TTOs) can probably be at least partly related to thesuccess of a few very visible US universities and regions, with Stanford/SiliconValley and MIT/Route 128 as the global archetypes of accomplishment (Moweryand Sampat, 2005). But without a very strong biotechnology base, for example,biotechnology commercialisation is most likely not going to be a major success,even with a support system in place. Often, such initiatives are oriented at creatingnew ideas and entrepreneurial ventures, but as mentioned, the main challenge ininnovation is mostly related to implementation and creating good user linkages(van de Ven et al., 2008).

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  • Many countries have adopted a narrow techno-economic perspective in theirhigher education and innovation policies (cf. Bullen et al., 2004; Molas-Gallert,2015; Hazelkorn, 2015). This may be seen as the source of a number of problematicresponses by HEIs. One is a tendency to reduce innovation to imply creatingnew rms. Academics and students learn to write business plans and enter intocompetitions where the best ideas are awarded a small sum of money, encouragedby a ourishing support structure. Entrepreneurship support may be needed, ofcourse, and there may be an untapped potential when it comes to encouragingnew ways of thinking and alternative careers among the students, also in thehumanities. The main problem with this approach is the singular emphasis onnew rm creation: Many universities are not very good at it, and the simple indi-cators of number of new rms and number of new jobs disguise and distort themany other important inuences that HEIs can have on innovation. HEIs are ofcourse aware of this, but they may be worried about losing legitimacy andresources. This can also lead to symbolic processes or attempts at gaining recog-nition and increasing the visibility of existing activities rather than a genuine wishto commit to innovation.

    Some HEIs see innovation and its support as something that should happenoutside of its core units and activities Stankiewicz (1986) calls this externalisa-tion. Innovation only enters the picture after research and teaching is carried out inthe usual way, and it is dealt with by TTOs and other units that have little inter-action with the centres and departments of the university. The challenges aresimilar to the ones emerging from a narrow view of innovation: externalisationgrossly underestimates the many direct linkages between core academic activitiesand society.

    Tensions arise because of these biases, and the most important is probablyrelated to indicators. This is where we nd the clearest gap between what weknow about innovation and how it is dealt with in practice. Although we knowthat innovation processes take a long time and that the central inuences of HEIsare indirect, the most frequently used indicators tend to measure only the directand often quite short-term impacts, such as patenting and number of rms created(cf. Benneworth, 2015). This is particularly a challenge when we talk about arts andhumanities, where many researchers are somewhat sceptical towards indicators tobegin with (even the ones they may excel in, such as media attention and popularscience publishing). Their scepticism is not reduced by the fact that many policy-makers seem to prefer the techno-economic indicators of commercialisation orpoorly dened notions of creative industries. Tensions may also ensue when aca-demics well-grounded scepticism towards some indicators or an unbalanced set ofindicators is interpreted by external stakeholders as unwillingness to engage inactivities that are increasingly seen as central for universities.

    But how are these tensions handled? How do misunderstandings and biases playout in practice? These questions will be shed light on using the example of theUniversity of Oslo in Norway, drawing on substantial archival material collectedfor the 200th anniversary of the university in 2011 (Gulbrandsen, 2011).

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  • Humanities and innovation: The case of the Universityof Oslo

    The University of Oslo is Norways oldest university, established in 1811, with astrong role for the humanities from the beginning. While specialised institutionsoriented towards agriculture, sheries and engineering emerged from the secondhalf of the 1800s; for over a century, the university in Oslo was the only broad andcomprehensive HEI in the country. It had (and still has) a strong role in trainingvarious types of personnel for the public sector, from teachers and medical doctorsto civil servants and priests. A wide range of disciplines have been supported, forexample with some important research breakthroughs in the natural sciences andtwo Nobel Prize winners in economics. There have been direct and visible contri-butions to innovation: the classic example is the establishment of Norsk Hydro in1905 as an academic spin-o company, which grew into a huge multinational andthe countrys most important industrial performer for a long period of time. Otherimpacts have been more subtle: a large historical analysis carried out for the anni-versary in 2011 concluded that the universitys most important societal contribu-tion, including innovation, had been through a steady stream of highly qualied,hard-working and not least trustworthy civil servants.

    Looking at the last 50 years and at how the university has dealt with the issue ofinnovation, we can see three corresponding shifts related to the way the universityhas regarded its core missions of teaching, research and dissemination. All havebeen driven by external events: changes in the labour market for graduates from the1960s, changes in industrial research and development (R&D) from the 1980s andchanges in policy throughout the period, but with a particular emphasis on HEIsand innovation from the 1990s. These shifts have had consequences for the huma-nities, and they serve to illustrate the tensions that emerge when the humanities aresubject to expectations of greater societal contributions.

    Employability of university graduates

    Signicant research funding and research policy as a distinct policy area onlymaterialised in Norway after WW2, but this marked the beginning of a periodof steady growth both in research funding and student numbers. New researchcouncils were established, including one for basic research with support for thehumanities. Apart from the special cases of professional training of medical doctorsand others, the university trained students through three levels: similar to bachelor(3 years), intermediary level (1 year) and master level with high demands to thesiswork (2 years). Most of the graduates from these university programmes, whichwere mostly open to all who satised the minimum demands, found jobs as tea-chers in the secondary school system.

    From the 1960s, several signicant changes were seen in the labour market. Therst ones to experience this were the natural sciences, where industry started hiringa much larger proportion of the graduates, whilst questioning the relevance of their

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  • skills. Leading representatives of rms and the national industry associationaccused the University of neglecting the needs of rms, to which the Rector andothers replied that rms had not shown any interest in the university either, settingo a debate about isolation that would continue for decades. The universitystarted a large new course for advanced level graduates in 1966, with guest lecturersfrom industry and applied research institutes, and with introductory lectures totopics such as marketing, production and quality control, computer programming,industrial policy and accounting. It was later moved to the social science facultyand is now a masters level critical management programme largely for studentsfrom social science and humanities.

    For the humanities, labour market problems started in the 1970s. An increasingshare of advanced level students could not nd relevant jobs, and in worryingnumbers, no job at all. There were fewer teacher positions available, and attemptswere made to persuade private companies to hire humanities graduates. For exam-ple, the year 1977 saw a big company survey, several meetings and informationcampaigns about the applicable expertise of the graduates. That year, there were 60unemployed philologists alone, with a contemporaneous study estimating that theshare of them becoming teachers would decrease from 85 to 60%, which byextrapolation to 1990 would lead 10,000 philologists into the national openlabour market. Philology and other humanities disciplines did not have an oiland gas industry screaming for graduates.

    National media raised critical voices in a debate about the relevance of thehumanities that has continued ever since. A good example can be found in theUniversity of Oslos own magazine, which had a special issue on The humanitiesand industry in 1984: external stakeholders voiced three areas of criticism. First,the humanities disciplines had too traditional ideas about careers for their gradu-ates. Little thought was given to other alternatives than a teaching career, andstudents learned little about topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship and theuse of modern technology. Second, the humanities were criticised for insucientlyvaried study programmes. Most were classroom and lecture based, and there wasnegligible practical project work or assignments related to outside perspectives.Third, some academic units were criticised for having a fanatic aversion to indus-try, partly as a trait of disciplinary cultures and partly as a result of the politicalradicalisation of the university from the end of the 1960s. Leading politiciansjoined the industrial representatives in claiming that the University was isolatedand that it needed a change of culture.

    The initial response to the challenges and the criticism was to set up a number ofpractical courses for late-stage humanities students. In particular, the course IT forhumanists, giving basic skills in word processing and other software, was so popu-lar that access had to be restricted. From the 1990s, a course in Entrepreneurshipand innovation for humanists has been run every year, although its eects havenot been evaluated. Various attempts have also been made for several decades toget humanities students to write their theses in collaboration with outside organ-isations, although the number has generally been low. The setup of new courses

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  • typically followed the externalist approach, but the general perception has beenthat there is a deeper challenge for the humanities that requires further shifts inresearch orientation and societal engagement. These shifts started to appear in the1980s in light of a rapidly changing industrial structure in Norway.

    Societal interest in university research

    The shift that started in the 1980s was driven in particular by increased R&Delsewhere in society, particularly, in industry. Norwegian rms quadrupled theirexpenditure on R&D during the decade, fuelled by the oil and gas sectors rapidgrowth as well as developments within areas such as implementation of ICT, bio-technology, sh farming breakthroughs and environmental technology. Withincreased absorptive capacity, rms sought more collaboration with HEIs togain access to graduates and because their products and processes were increasinglyknowledge-intensive.

    For the University of Oslo, this largely meant improving the interface betweenacademia and industry. A secretariat for externally funded activities was estab-lished to deal with the formal issues related to contracts and money. AnInnovation Centre followed shortly thereafter, along with a ResearchFoundation oriented at initiating new and cross-disciplinary research eorts,including the humanities. The Innovation Centres task was initially planned tobe a link between researchers and industry to help companies get in touch withuniversity employees and to help researchers with ideas with practical potential.However, its main and dominating mission eventually turned out to be managingthe process of building a science park next to the university. The park was plannedin a period of strong economic growth, but it opened in 1989 in a time of crisis andrising unemployment.

    Many of the activities in these organisations were oriented at the hard sciences,but it was continuously repeated that the soft sciences should also be on board.This was more than lip service; key actors genuinely wanted to include humanitiesperspectives in many of the new activities and succeeded to some extent. TheInnovation Centre contributed to establishing an incubator for rms started byarts and humanities students, new humanities research groups found localities inthe science park and the Foundation established some cross-disciplinary activitieswhere the hard and soft sciences met. The University Rector who served for mostof the decade came from the Faculty of Theology, and he stated that the goal of thenew innovation-oriented activities should be that there would be a philosopher inevery board of every stock exchange-listed company.

    This desire to include the humanities had several explanations. The moststraightforward one was that key gures believed in the innovative potentialand societal/industrial relevance of the soft sciences. For example, the introduc-tion of ICT in traditional industries had shown that main challenges in suchprocesses were often not technological but related to cultural, structural andethical aspects of modern-day working life. A political explanation is also

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  • relevant: the new innovation support initiatives challenged the fragile balancebetween the dierent faculties at the university, and several actors expressedfears that the Innovation Centre and Science Park would contribute to reallocat-ing funding from the less useful sciences to the more useful ones, as oneprofessor put it.

    Including the humanities helped calm the opponents, and all faculties voted forthe construction of the science park. Creative funding models were sought wherethe university could spend interest on current and future external research funding,which in practice meant that the University got a science park built without spend-ing any of its own grants. The Innovation Centre and Research Foundation wereexpected to become self-sucient, an unrealistic ambition that led to a major con-ict at the end of the 1980s, which culminated in the merger of all these organisa-tions into the science park administration. The park remains active and has builtfour new buildings following the rst one, but has never realised its ambition tobecome the central meeting place between all academic disciplines and society. Anddespite some new research initiatives, the humanities link to innovation in societywas not much more visible after these new formal mechanisms were put in place.The hard sciences beneted from the increase in industrial R&D, but there was nosimilar process related to the humanities, even though they had been part of thenew university infrastructure and cross-disciplinary initiatives.

    Action plan for innovation

    The years after the shift into a new millennium may have been the most turbulentin the universitys history when it comes to innovation. At the beginning of the2000s, torchlight rallies were organised in Oslo with many leading academics fromthe humanities taking part under banners such as No to commercialisation ofresearch. This was chiey related to worries about budget cuts and changes inresearch council funding. It signalled scepticism about how universities were trea-ted, with widespread feelings that the pressure on societal usefulness had becometoo strong. Yet, at the end of the decade, the University adopted a strategic plandening innovation as one of its four core missions (along with teaching, researchand dissemination), and in 2013, an Action Plan for Innovation was implementedwith the Faculty of Humanities as one of the most eager participants. What hadhappened?

    This third shift was related to changes in research and higher education policyand to a stronger internal acceptance of the universitys responsibilities for societalengagement and new ways of seeing it. Policymakers initially pushed for morecommercialisation of academic research right after the millennium shift, believingthat there were practical barriers to exploitation and entrepreneurship. Legislativechanges in 2003 gave the intellectual property rights to research results to theuniversity (earlier the individual academics had those rights) and formalisedHEIs responsibility for ensuring that research results benet society. TheUniversity of Oslo decided to establish a TTO, with some tensions related to its

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  • funding. From the beginning, the TTO wanted to work equally with all discip-lines, and it initially started a publishing house, viewing books as a commercialproduct from the soft sciences. This approach was not successful, and the TTOlater evolved into a unit specialised towards commercialisation support to ideasoriginating in life sciences and natural sciences. Clearer TTO specialisation hasapparently been benecial for the services to the hard sciences and also made thesta from social science and humanities feel more at liberty to pursue otheractivities.

    Although policymakers certainly would have liked to see more spin-o compa-nies and jobs created by academics and students, they also have grown more real-istic in their expectations. The overall rhetoric has changed, reecting theexpansion of the concept of innovation from something creating economic valueto something that can be valuable in other ways. White papers on research andinnovation have invoked the grand challenges and societal challenges, and theyhave been dened in ways that are clearly relevant to arts and humanities scholars,related for example to the cultural sector in an era of globalisation, and to immi-gration issues.

    The University of Oslo in response dened 2013 as its Year of Innovationand made an action plan to support it, involving a cross-disciplinary group ofacademics and administrators. Much work was put into making sensible den-itions of innovation and in presenting a broad set of examples related to teach-ing, research and dissemination. The humanities representative was particularlyactive and important in this process, compiling a document showcasing manyexamples of innovation-relevant activities within the humanities, ranging fromvarious projects within digital humanities to large-scale collaborative projectswith industry and the creative sector. The nal plan contained goals, four pagesof denitions and examples and concrete actions to be taken within leadershipand personnel policies, teaching and knowledge exchange with external actorsand improved promotion of existing innovative work. In the follow-up to theplan, the Faculty of Humanities was active, and spent some of its own strategicfunds on supporting initiatives such as new forms of project work for studentsand incentives for externally funded project engagement.

    Whether the plan and other initiatives will lead to important new results remainto be seen, but the process is much less characterised by conicts and tensions thanone would expect from earlier decades attempts at similar actions. The broaddenition of innovation used seems at least partially responsible for this reducedtension level, and at least some leading humanities professors have found innov-ation to be a useful concept for describing some of their scholarly activities. At theUniversity of Oslo, this may also be related to changes in academic leadership, witha rector and deans supporting the new perspectives, and to a generation shift wheresome younger academics have had alternative ideas and backgrounds. In sum, thiscould signify an increased awareness and understanding of the process of innov-ation and be suggestive of the realisation of the long called-for change in academicculture.

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  • Discussion and conclusion: Tensions and innovation

    We have in this article briey presented the main ndings from the innovationliterature and investigations of universityindustry relations to discuss whetherinnovation can be a useful concept for arts and humanities research. Current per-spectives favour a broad notion of innovation that includes non-commercial andpublic-sector aspects, which make it highly relevant for most academic disciplines including arts and humanities. This does not mean that it is easy to support or freeof tensions. We have dened typical biases in academic and policy communities;the most important one is most likely a techno-economic perspective that onlyfavours some types of innovation-oriented activities. In addition, we have pre-sented a historical case study of how a large Norwegian university has dealt withthe challenges of innovation. Shifts in perspectives and actions related to teaching,research and societal engagement can be seen in dierent time periods.

    The case study and the literature review have shown that supporting innovationis linked to complex issues like leadership and funding of HEIs. A policy to pro-mote innovation can, if carried out poorly, accentuate various tensions, not leastbetween the various disciplines found in universities. From the literature and thehistorical case, we can pinpoint four additional tensions that need to be handled forthe arts and humanities to have propitious conditions for innovation.

    Indicator tensions

    These are probably hard to avoid and dicult to deal with. We know that innov-ation takes a long time and, with most often, an indirect role for HEIs. Supportingpatenting and entrepreneurship processes can in some cases be necessary, butpatents and new companies remain rare outputs of universities, even from thehard sciences, and these cannot therefore be the only indicators. But it is hard tond agreement on any indicators, including the ones related to the core activities ofteaching and research. In Norway, two committees have failed to come up with aset of indicators of dissemination (number of popular books, newspaper articles,readers, viewers, etc.), dissemination being an indicator some humanities research-ers have wanted but other have opposed. The University of Oslo has implementedsix indicators for the budgeting process with fairly little opposition. The way tohandle the tension seems to be to choose the most uncontroversial indicators (stu-dent throughput, research council funding and so on) and to compare all facultiesonly with their own past performance rather than with other faculties.

    Quality tensions

    Will societal engagement reduce the quality of teaching, research and scholarship?Are universities too preoccupied with their teaching and research to becomeinvolved in innovation? These worries are frequently encountered in the debateabout the humanities and about universities. The empirical literature clearly nds

    Gulbrandsen and Aanstad 21

  • that the most important contribution of HEIs in innovation emerges through high-quality teaching and research and that academics with a high level of externalengagement generally also have a high-scholarly standing. These two ndingsmay in themselves reduce some tensions related to the innovation concept andsuggest that the main strategy of HEIs should be to do their core missions aswell as possible. However, this does not mean that quality and innovation comprisea tension-free relationship. First, tensions may be encountered in situations wherethere is a low-absorptive capacity in society, with few potential collaboration part-ners and few employers valuing the best graduates. For research universities, part-nerships with local colleges and similar organisations could be a way to deal withthis problem. Second, the positive relationship between innovation/societal contri-butions and quality does not mean that it is easily achieved in funding structuresthat try to achieve this synergy during the course of specic research projects itmay just as well be a longer-term eect of opportunities for long-term scienticwork and positive relations to non-academic communities (Gulbrandsen andSmeby, 2005). We also know that dierent types of universities and collegeshave dierent contributions to innovation processes in society, which may meanthat a more nuanced quality discourse than scientic excellence is needed. Theuniversityindustry relations literature has shown that collaboration with univer-sity departments with low ratings in academic excellence may lead to useful resultsin external partnering organisations.

    Teaching versus research tensions

    Much innovation support is biased in favour of research activities: more researchcollaboration, more ideas based on research results, more exploitation of theseideas and so on. For individual academics, the main promotion criteria remainrelated to research in most countries. But as we have seen, teaching is a centralcontribution to innovation in society by HEIs, and the current and former studentsare of course a valuable source of new initiatives and experiences about how theirtraining ts their careers. Many linkage mechanisms between universities andpotential employers are initiated by students, who are often motivated by practiceand project work related to problems in their local communities. Perhaps, mostimportantly, it is good graduates that give rms, government and civil society thecapacity to absorb university knowledge and apply it eectively for innovation, andthe broader idea of social innovation implies that humanities graduates are asimportant for this capacity as their hard science equivalents.

    Infrastructure tensions

    The University of Oslo case implies that a fairly specialised support structure forinnovation may be better than one organisational unit oering services to all dis-ciplines. This means that humanities may need to think seriously about the type ofsupport they need to become more engaged with society. An infrastructure does

    22 Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 14(1)

  • not come for free, however. Although innovation may be desirable from a societalpoint of view, and it may also be desirable that HEIs get more involved in innov-ation processes, the actual benets from this will in most cases not be reaped by theuniversities and colleges. Linkage and transfer initiatives are costly, and unlessHEIs can redistribute money from teaching, research and administration, othersources of funding need to be found. Many initiatives have failed due to unrealisticexpectations of self-suciency or fears that something else will suer from budgetcuts. Innovation is neither useful for arts and humanities scholars nor for anyoneelse if it becomes an activity that competes with education and research.

    The main message in this article is that the expansion of the innovation concepthas a great deal to oer understanding of the societal contribution of the huma-nities if applied in a nuanced way. More than ever, the humanities research activ-ities and graduates can easily be tied to well-communicated societal goals andabsorptive capacity. This constitutes an opportunity that can be exploited ifsome of the tensions surrounding innovation can be avoided. But the caveat isthat there is a strong tendency among policymakers, university leaders and aca-demics themselves to stick to narrow innovation perspectives: as something techno-logical, as something economic or as something where the main challenge is tocreate new knowledge and ideas. Although arts and humanities scholars mayescape some of the most instrumental calls for innovation and utility by adoptinga narrow perspective, the danger is that they put themselves at risk by under-communicating their actual and potential contribution to innovation in society.


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    Author biographies

    Magnus Gulbrandsen is Professor at the Centre for Technology, Innovation andCulture (TIK) at the University of Oslo and Senior Researcher at the NordicInstitute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU). He hasworked empirically on many issues related to science, innovation, higher educationand policy. In particular, he has studied the complex relationship between scienceand society and various forms of knowledge transfer and exchange. His researchhas been published in leading international journals, books and policy reports.

    Siri Aanstad is researcher at NIFU and has worked with many dierent projects inthe areas of innovation policy, innovation studies and science studies, includingmapping of policy developments across countries and studies of internationalisa-tion. Her main interest is in business history and economic history, including therole of HEIs in industrial development. Her research has been published in books,journals and policy reports.

    24 Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 14(1)


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