The Entrepreneurial Academic – Fighting against a “Race to the Bottom”

The Entrepreneurial Academic – Fighting against a “Race to the Bottom”

If Henry Eztkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff1 were right and the triple helix, latterly n-tuple helices2 , were indeed evolutionary models of society, government, industry and academia interaction then by virtue of time the overlap of the helices, within our 2040 knowledge ecosystems, should be immense. This overlap, which is essentially a ‘sweet-spot’ of practical knowledge creation, adoption and diffusion should be operating much more effectively than the current state, with associated huge rewards for the knowledge-based economies. But as with any eco-system that society (and the governments that represent them) interact with, not all system forces created are positive. These negative forces essentially pervert the evolutionary interactions and neutralise the potential offered by the unconstrained flow of knowledge. Perhaps in 2040 we will have begun to understand these opposing forces and will have solved some of the paradoxes within the system. The trends however, across much of Europe, show no signs of changing their dominant logic, as we fast approach 2020.

One such paradox is the role that business engagement plays in the arena of ‘high quality’ research. All academic institutions are keen to explain how they tailor their world class research to suit industry’s needs and how their. All academic institutions are keen to explain how they tailor their world class research to suit industry’s needs and how their academics create impact through societal knowledge adoption and diffusion. However, the trajectory appears to be tangential, not complimentary, viewed from the perspective of an Entrepreneurial Academic3.

Entrepreneurial Academics build high-quality and diverse portfolios of industry-funded research, often using practitioner-style research methods to create impactful and adoptable ‘know-how’ for the greater good of society. They have shunned the attractions of private income sources from IP rights and company directorships/ shareholdings achieved by a handful of Academic Entrepreneurs at the end of the 20th and early 21st Century.

Entrepreneurial Academics are therefore ideally-placed to be the agents of change in the knowledge-ecosystem, where their actions can lead the way for increased interoperability between the parties acting in our knowledge co-systems.

But whilst it ought to be plain sailing for these individuals, it is becoming evident it is not. They feel that their legitimacy is challenged by the universities dominant logic, their work is sometimes seen as ‘intellectually tarnished’ by their peers and their career paths hard to navigate. Often coming late to research, with experience that undoubtedly aids in achieving impact, this group is trapped at an impasse.

One side of the impasse is the role that high quality journal publications play in the institutional landscapes across Europe. On the other side is the need to create impactful research; to share their knowledge and to create greater societal benefit. In the run up to 2020 the scrabble for the top journal articles is becoming even fiercer with so called “world-leading” journals rejecting more than 99% of all submissions (in aggregate)4. In this academic scrabble to publish, there can be no doubt that the trend toward less practical, less relevant research is prevailing and large anonymized data cohorts with tight statistical methods leave little space for practical adoption and impact, particularly if your aim is to secure intensive levels of knowledge utility in the user community. So how is this paradox to be resolved and will it be resolved by 2040?

If the current trends prevail then one scenario sees the top research universities reverting to the intellectual but aloof knowledge-creators of the late 19th and early 20th Century, with the more applied universities filling the impact gap, curating and translating research for the masses. But this is not an evolution of the knowledge-ecosystems, more like a reversion. If we pursue the ecological ecosystem metaphor further, perhaps we will see some stronger interventions from governments to try to rebalance this reversion away from a knowledge-ecosystem. However, if we borrow some more knowledge from the ecosystem metaphor, research has also shown a ‘protectionist’ strategy will not solve the problems faced by natural ecosystems. Current thinking suggests environmental ‘growth’ is the only answer. In 2040 therefore, will we be in a truly ‘circular and generative’ knowledge ecosystem or merely picking through the scattered remains of Etzkowitz’s helices?

One vision for a truly ‘circular’ and ‘regenerative’ knowledge economy could be that the boundaries between knowledge creation, diffusion and adoption are entirely fluid and therefore blurred. Perhaps a little like the SECI model of knowledge creation made popular by Nonaka & Takeuchi in the 1990s5, where Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation are the forces at work to create organisational knowledge. But with blurred boundaries how do we decide on our quality ranking? How do we reinforce, or perhaps revolutionalise our existing methods of evaluating high quality research? Do knowledge ‘creators’ shift their role to knowledge ‘curators’ for much of the time and what role does training and education play in enabling our societies to operate in this eco-system?

These questions are troubling the authors of a plethora of research studies around the creation and management of effective knowledge ecosystems, the question, however, is will these research studies yield learnings that can be adopted by our societies or will they be destined for un-applied but ‘high quality’ research publications?

1Etzkowitz, H., & Leydesdorff, L. (2000). The dynamics of innovation: from National Systems and “Mode 2” to a Triple Helix of university–industry–government relations. Research policy, 29(2), 109-123.

2 Leydesdorff, L. (2012). The triple helix, quadruple helix,…, and an N-tuple of helices: explanatory models for analyzing the knowledge-based economy? Journal of the Knowledge Economy, 3(1), 25-35.

3 Alexander, A. T., Miller, K., & Fielding, S. (2015). Open for business: Universities, entrepreneurial academics and open innovation. International Journal of Innovation Management, 19(06), 1540013.

4 Matthews, D. (2016). High rejection rates by journals ‘pointless’. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

5 Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge-creating company: How Japanese companies create the dynamics of innovation. Oxford university press.’


Dr Allen Alexander is Senior Lecturer in Innovation based in the University of Exeter Business School, where he leads a small research team, exploring the role that innovation plays in products and service provision and uses practitioner-style research to explore concepts such as Innovation Management Capability and Absorptive Capacity. He is also studying the interaction between Universities, Industry and Society and has published many high quality journal articles focusing on the development of this field. He is an Engineer by first career, with an MSc in Engineering Management and a PhD that focused on practical aspects of University-Industry Knowledge Transfer. Allen’s research is developed in conjunction with Nokia, BMW, Lufthansa, Lego, Aachen Munchener and various UKbased large companies such as EDF Energy and Selex Galileo. He also leads a range of smaller research projects exploring knowledge adoption across SMEs, micro enterprises and Entrepreneurs.

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