Academic Spin-Offs as Boundary Spanning Organisations and Epitomising a New Mode of Generating Knowledge: Opportunities for Innovation, Threatening Scientific Quality?


I. Objectives

This project deals with the relations that nonuniversity research institutes have to the contexts in which the results of their research and development are put into practice. The focus is on spin-offs that make those results available for use and continued development by private companies. Spin-offs are to be read as symptoms of change processes in the German science system. Institutionally, the trend toward spin-offs also reflects the attempt of institutes to demonstrate the social relevance of research. Cognitively, the trend manifests new ways of acquiring knowledge. The distinction between theoretical basic research and policy-oriented research practice seems to be losing importance in view of a new mode of knowledge production that integrates and synthesizes theoretical and practical aspects through recursive loops.

Using methods of microsociology, project members are following approaches applied in the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of work, and organizational sociology to probe this new type of research and its constant "cross-over" processes in historical and international contexts. They intend to analyze its scope, meanings, opportunities, and risks, to evaluate possible effects on the quality of epistemological processes in science, and to draw conclusions for science policy. The purpose is also to inquire into the change in quality standards that is associated with the trend toward spin-offs and to learn which new instruments are needed by funding institutions to evaluate and judge the quality of research relating to spin-offs.

The research landscape in Germany has two areas, one in the universities; the other, outside the universities. The latter area is accorded a task defined as complementary to university research. Receiving €3.5 billion of basic institutional funding (2001), research centers outside the universities account for a considerable share of the total tax revenue invested in science and research (BMBF, 2002). The four pillars in this landscape are the Hermann von Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers (Hermann-von-Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren, HFG), the Leibniz Association (Wissenschaftsgemeinschaft Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, e.V. [WGL]), the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (FhG), and the Max Planck Society (MPG). As umbrella organizations, they furnish the organizational foundations of scientific work and follow a clearly delineated, assigned program. The one group the institutes emphasizes theoretical basic research; the other is dedicated to applied research.

This structure has visibly come under pressure in recent years. One reason is that Germany’s federal and state budgets are gripped by financial crisis, with the legitimation of all expenditure items being subjected to ever greater scrutiny. Another reason is that the strategic importance of knowledge as a resource in the economic competition fostered by the “knowledge society” has prompted various quarters to stress practical relevance. Nonuniversity institutions see themselves compelled to protect their levels of funding by updating both their scientific quality and their meaning to society at large. Analysis of the criticism that makers of science policy level at institutes outside the universities shows that the research program’s previously defined mission of concentrating on particular segments of scientific activities no longer seems a sufficient legitimation. Nonuniversity research institutes that continue to receive funding even despite precarious budgetary constraints are expected to demonstrate their practical relevance, cooperate with the universities, link basic and applied research, offer academic services, advise the policy-making community, and engage with industry. This trend could eventually mean that “universal providers” will be able to prevail in the research landscape, making strictly theoretical or strictly practical work unworthwhile. The future concept of success for nonuniversity institutions therefore seems to be the ability to support a gamut of scientific endeavor—from theoretical and conceptual contemplation to the testing of prototypes, as signified by an integrated presentation of results. It is still a completely open question whether this integrated approach lends itself to ensuring and improving the quality and competitiveness of scientific work or whether there is not instead the danger of questioning key criteria for judging the quality of that work without first agreeing on alternative evaluation standards.

These transformation processes of the research landscape are reflected unusually well in the phenomenon of spin-offs. Institutions outside the university system have been investing more and more in complementary areas in recent years. Institutes ostensibly oriented to basic research are gaining access to and work contexts with relevant nonacademic stakeholders, and institutes committed to applied research are increasingly consolidating theoretical knowledge and seeking ways to tie into the academic community. All attempts to open the interface between the existing basic organizational structures of research in Germany may be regarded as evidence of the activities transcending them. These efforts may range from inclusion in cooperative ventures, such as research consortia or networks, to the arrangement of personnel exchanges and the creation of spin-offs. Spin-offs represent a special way of partly bridging the organizational divide between the scientific community and groups that can use scientific results and knowledge—to the extent that the two sides pursue their own economic interests. Through contractual agreements on the use of infrastructure or results and through the transfer of personnel, spin-offs often continue cultivating cooperative relations with the "parent institute" for a certain period.

In recent research relating to the sociology of knowledge, the change in the science system is connected with institutional changes and new kinds of knowledge production. One observation is that the traditional distinction between basic and applied research has become questionable today because science is not only embedded in the practical use of results but, through the very process of knowledge formation itself, deeply rooted in social contexts. It has also been noted that the transformation of the science system calls for modified, even entirely new evaluation criteria. Such lines of reasoning in the sociology of knowledge need to be empirically examined with spin-offs as the examples.

The perspective offered by the sociology of knowledge is additionally complemented by approaches used in organizational sociology as well as the discipline of history. The project thereby adheres to current postulates of research on science, which has benefited in recent years primarily from input contributed by organizational psychology and history. The intention behind the practice of combining approaches from the sociology of knowledge and organizational sociology is to inquire into organizational aspects of spin-offs and into their relations to their parent institutes and to their markets and customers. The aim is also to identify what demands the researchers encounter in the various constellations. These analyses have been spurred partly by theoretical points of departure and concepts in research on science that were developed for work on the interface between scientific and nonscientific contexts. However, the concentration on linkages and interactions is not intended to obscure the demarcations, conflicts, and breaches between the actors involved.

This project’s historical perspective is important to placing the postulated current trend toward spin-offs into the broader context of changes in the science system and to ascertaining the degree to which that trend is a qualitatively new phenomenon or only a rhetorical relabeling of traditional research practices. The inquiry is mainly concerned with the development of the spin-off phenomenon in light of the ways that public research and private commercial organizations have cooperated since 1945.

II. Levels of Investigation

1. Morphology of Spin-offs

The morphology of spin-offs includes the motives, development, and forms of transfer arrangements, the structures and characteristics of spin-offs and their disciplinary differentiations, and the positioning of spin-offs in the scientific landscape.

2. Forms of Knowledge Production in Spin-offs and Discussion of New Evaluation Criteria for Spin-offs

The forms of knowledge production specific to spin-offs are to be investigated in context, including the transfer, retransfer, and recursions of knowledge between spin-offs and their parent institutes. The retroactive effects on the individual disciplines are to be kept in mind as well. Lastly, close attention is to be given the change in quality standards for judging spin-offs and the strategies for evaluating knowledge production in the context of spin-offs.

3. Demand for Science

Spin-offs are to be explored for their customer relations. The results will permit conclusions and generalizations about the changes in market demand for commercial forms of scientific expertise. Researchers will also look into the experience that spin-offs have with adaptations to changed market demand and into strategies for exploiting new markets.

4. Research Policy and the Scientific System

Specific funding instruments and the assessment and evaluation of spin-offs are being analyzed in relation to research policy. The research project also evaluates the opportunities and alternatives for market-centered acquisition of knowledge, notably the risks that accompany the privatization of public goods. The opportunities for spin-offs in the social sciences are being considered separately.

At least eight spin-offs of nonuniversity institutions are to be included in the investigation, with equal representation of the different umbrella organizations and fields of research (natural, engineering, and social sciences). Methodologically, the treatment of the case studies will be based on content analysis, guided interviews, and the reconstruction and careful review of archive materials and other historical sources.

In order to evaluate the characteristic features of the German situation, multiple perspectives are being drawn from the international context. International comparison is being conducted at two levels: (a) the research policy of the European Union, and (b) selected comparisons with other countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, and Switzerland).

Main content

Subproject: "Knowledge Production and Control"

Andreas Knie, Dagmar Simon, Holger Braun-Thürmann, Martin Lengwiler and Jörg Potthast
of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB)


Bernhard Truffer
of the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (Eidgenössische Anstalt für Wasserversorgung, Abwasserreinigung und Gewässerschutz, EAWAG), Dübendorf (Germany) and Lucerne (Switzerland)

Subproject: "Work and Organization"

Heike Jacobsen, Gerd Möll,
Sozialforschungsstelle Dortmund (sfs)