AlumniWatch: Innovating India from the Inside

In the first of a new series featuring illustrious alumni, we ask Dr. Lina Sonne to share her insights and impressions of the working world. Now based in Mumbai, she speaks of the city’s energy and optimism, as well as the challenges of breaking through years of patriarchy and bureaucracy.

It’s an exciting time to be living and working in India, not only to witness the massive social transformation but also to play a role in the whirlwind of top-down and bottom-up development. Change is now being spurred on several fronts, and academia is no exception. In particular, the setting up of new universities allows more students to follow tertiary education while improving home-grown research.

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MEIDE Conference 2012: Micro Innovation for Development

Stunning Cape Town, South Africa, was the venue for our 6th Micro Evidence on Innovation and Development (MEIDE) conference, 21-23 November 2012, held alongside an OECD event on Innovation for Inclusive Development.

Professors Pierre Mohnen and Théophile Azomahou from UNU-MERIT were the main people in charge of this year’s conference. The HSRC Center for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII), based in Cape Town, did a superb job in taking care of the local organization.Table Mountain, Cape Town, Flickr / Joseph Ferris III

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Pink Slippers and Platinum: Governance Failure and the Decline of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in South Africa

South Africa’s national defence force was once perhaps highly rated; recently it is facing ridicule and concern. Ridicule, as a Lieutenant-Colonel was seen sporting pink slippers with her official uniform in public. According to the UK’s Guardian Newspaper, “It is not an image of top guns defending African skies that is likely to deter would-be foreign invaders”. Concern, as an officer borrowed an air force plane for personal use to visit a friend in neighbouring Botswana.

South Africa’s platinum mines were also once highly rated. Until the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012 when the South African Police killed 34 striking workers, apparently shooting many in the back, interfering with evidence after the shootings, and charging the mine workers (the victims) with the deaths of their fellows. While it is the police, and not the mines that are now facing an inquiry, the context of South African mining remains problematic, despite a decade of the longest commodity boom in recent history.

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Redefining Value and Productivity

At one of our regular Thursday seminars earlier this year, the speaker repeated what we have often heard more casually: the productivity of an academic worker goes down when assigned administrative tasks; administration is not productive work.

Remarks to that effect pass for platitudes, seldom Flickr / E.Weaverquestioned. Yet, if one dispenses with prejudiced frames for a moment and gives it a second deliberate thought, it should seem a paradox. Administration is not productive work? Why ever not? The answer lies in the definition of what is being produced. The seminar speaker implied an assumption. That particular piece of research was concerned with producing new knowledge – publishing. Naturally, administration of taught programmes adds little to research output and the assumption is quite valid.

If we look at academia more broadly, however, the product can be variously defined. Here at our institute, we offer graduate programmes. That is the other product, aside from research. The fiddly business of concatenating appropriate metrics for the combined product stream is a different matter. But if we were to acknowledge that the taught part of our product catalogue is a ‘well-administered graduate programme’, suddenly the very definition of the product deems administration a core productive activity.

That is not to make a point exclusively about what we value in academia, although the above is hardly a trivial point. There is a larger discussion. Assessing productivity has much to do with how products are defined. And defining products has to do with value propositions.

Take cars. (What else? Indeed, nothing is more Flickr / R.Zymurgysymbolic of the old economic paradigm. But this is to connect to words of a promising young scientist I have closely followed for a while. He uses the example of cars. And it ties in nicely with the last two posts on this blog.) You leave home every day at 0830, arrive at office 0850 and park your car. Your neighbour leaves at 0910, arrives 0925, and parks. Your colleague has a lunch appointment at a hotel near your house, leaves 1225, arrives 1245, parks. All the cars parked for hours do not provide anyone with any value. Usually, they are just taking up precious space, arguably a drain on the economy if anything.

In a more wired world, where sensors at home and office and in phones and vehicles could coordinate and synchronize it all for us beautifully, we could share cars. Fewer cars would need to be produced to give equivalent or greater value. Why then be in the business of selling cars? Why not be in the business of selling person-kilometres? At my old institute (IIIEE at Lund University), we were accustomed to asking questions of that sort. At my current institute (UNU at Maastricht), would we not want to accordingly recalibrate the study of productivity?

We are nearly there – a world where less is more, a world with a more sustainable economic engine. We ought to redefine value propositions, products, productivity, and yes, our bread-winning term for the creation of new value – innovation.

by Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Images: Flickr / E.Weaver / R.Zymurgy


He Said, She Said: Changes Ahead for Citation and Review in Research

Citation and peer review have been unchallenged central tenets of academic epistemology for at least as long as the keywords in this sentence have been around. To most in the field today, the very suggestion that they should be challenged is something akin to anathema. Yet that suggestion is on its way from a murmur to a roar. Three recent commentaries and trends undercut the importance of citation, at least as we understand it in academe.

The very concept of knowledge is changing or Flickr / Dan4th Nicholaspoised to change. In a world where it is no longer impossible for a digital encyclopaedia to contain every fact about every entity in every corner of the planet, netizens may be excused for expecting it to. Just as surely, authors may wish to add entries on subjects that no one else has ever bothered to write on.

As an instance, the New York Times article linked above mentions the Malayalam entry about an indigenous game known to ‘only’ a few million in a part of India. No published accounts of the game existed, and the authors had to improvise a new form of citation. In such a vast trove of knowledge, is the place and significance of citations of the conventional kind intact? How would we reconcile the old with the emerging forms of authority?

On the flipside, does the paramount emphasis on reviewing prior literature, given its bursting volumes and the ready access to it all stifle the rare creative spark? An educationalist at the Pope Centre argues that the customary research paper expected of students at every level does little to train them in the techniques of laying arguments and ideas of their own.

Many do a satisfactory job of reviewing existing literature, even an exhaustive one of which takes little effort online. Few ever try to expound a thesis of their own. It is not expected of them, as it was of scholars of the age when the foundations of scientific philosophy were being laid, the age of the word ‘thesis’ itself.

They leave college unable to write their mind and explore an all-new idea in the manner of the research articles that they routinely review in abundance. Should we train them at universities or leave it to the select few who will continue to age in academia to muddle through it at their own pace?

Lastly, concerns are rising over the awkward inefficiency of transacting scientific progress by way of academic journals, in a globalized, wired world. In a time of constrained budgets, universities are beginning to measure research success solely as a function of external funds brought in.

Given the skewed compulsions and perverse incentives embedded in the system, grassroots efforts have emerged to allow researchers to share negative results. It shan’t be long before some crowd-sourced authority online could tell you whether or not you should be undertaking a particular research question. And why not?

Sachin Kumar BADKAS, PhD fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Dan4th Nicholas


Toilets Save Lives: Call for Teaching Tools

Remember that scene from Slumdog Millionaire? That’s what most people in developing country slums have as toilets. Yet at the same time there are thousands of abandoned or barely used household toilets in India and in Africa. Abandoned because they are poorly built, because of a lack of water, or for a lack of maintenance or demand.

Many low-cost toilets become deadly points of environmental contamination. So there is a real need to make sure we build QUALITY toilets – which will be used and appreciated en masse – while working towards the MDG of improving access to safe sanitation.

So what’s the problem? There are plenty of books on sanitation in the market. There’s plenty of information on the internet on sanitation. There are costly workshops that policy makers can attend to learn about this subject, as well as simpler workshops given to masons and field supervisors under less glamorous settings.

There are plenty of training programmes, but what is retained of such programmes? We simply don’t know! The problem is there are no tools to assess people’s knowledge of sanitation.

Representing UNU-MERIT (NL) and FIN (India), I aim to create a tool that will help people who are driving sanitation efforts work out what their team members know or don’t know – and how to rectify this.

In partnership with Gita Balakrishnan of ETHOS (India) and Valentin Post of WASTE (NL), I’m organizing a call for contributions to a ‘Sanitation Question-Answer Bank’ under the aegis of the FINISH programme for sanitation coverage in India.

What does this call for contributions to Sanitation Question-Answer Bank mean? It means if you can think of an interesting question (along with a photo) on how to promote safe sanitation – and can also explain the answer – we want to hear from you!

Expert judges will select 1000 winning entries, each of which will be awarded Rs 75 each (or you can contribute this to repair of toilets!). The concept paper giving detailed explanations about the contest and the answer sheet format is available at Ethos India.

All interesting entries will be acknowledged with the name of the contributor clearly mentioned. These will be compiled into an e-book and put in the creative commons – to be used by any agency teaching about sanitation or anyone who wants to test and improve their knowledge on this subject.

by Shyama Ramani, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT. Image: Flickr / Waterdotorg (Tamil Nadu, India)

New Blog on Digital Research Methods: ‘SHARE-IT’

In December 2011 we won a ‘Leading in Learning’ grant of €10,000 to develop a blog on digital research methods. It was launched in April 2012 and is called: ‘Support & Help for Academic REsearchers by using Information Technology’ (SHARE-IT).

Our blog presents knowledge and experience in IT-based ways of doing research. This ranges from the use of online forums for discussing research results to the use of Google for searching for literature; from online reference managers to ways of keeping track of current developments online. Overall SHARE-IT provides short, accessible and critical discussions of such online tricks and tools.

Posts will be written by and for early career researchers. So if YOU’RE a researcher with something relevant to share with the world, why not contribute by contacting us here? You could discuss a particular tool or workaround from you own experience. And beyond sharing your knowledge, it’s a way to make your research better known.

Besides Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, our project team consists of Koen Beumer and Joeri Bruyninckx (at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) and Jeroen van Merrienboer and Daniëlle Verstegen (from the Faculty of Health and Medicine).

Florian Henning and Martin Rehm, Researchers at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance / United Nations University-MERIT.

Neglected Tropical Diseases and the Austerity Pandemic

Dumdum fever (or visceral leishmaniasis) is caused by a parasite (leishmania) and kills more than half a million people every year. After malaria it’s the world’s deadliest parasitic infection, but little has been done to combat it until very recently.

Dumdum fever is what is known as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD). Other NTDs include buruli ulcer, chagas disease, cysticercosis, dengue, dracunculiasis, echinococcosis, endemic reponematoses, helminthiases, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, rabies, schistosomiasis, trypanosomiasis, and trematode infections.

More than a billion people UN Photo / Sophia Paris are affected by NTDs, yet treatments are rare. On the one hand this is because they are ‘diseases of poverty’, i.e. they mainly affect poor people who can afford neither vaccines nor medical treatments. So there is little incentive for profit-oriented pharmaceutical firms to invest in R&D for treatments.

On the other hand poor-country governments are often fragile states which lack the resources (and often the commitment) to invest in basic amenities which would limit the spread and impact of NTDs, or to provide access to existing medicines. For instance 2.5 billion people still lack proper sanitation and safe water, and 1.5 billion live without electricity.

Continued growth and economic development, coupled with appropriate policies and government investment, is clearly a necessary condition for reducing and eventually eliminating the impact of these diseases. But development takes time, and the benefits of growth are often slow to ‘trickle down’ to the poorest in society.

Moreover, the debilitating effects of these diseases are a contributing factor to poverty. Global intervention is needed to (i) provide access to existing treatments and best practices, but also to (ii) generate, diffuse and use new and more affordable vaccines and other treatments – for many NTDs existing treatments are ‘old, cumbersome to administer, or toxic’ (WHO, 2012:iv).

The World Health WHO NTDsOrganization (WHO) recently announced a Roadmap to deal with NTDs, which is an encouraging step as far as the former (i) is concerned. It aims to control or eradicate most of these NTDs by 2020. The report notes a growing number of contributions by multinational pharmaceutical firms to contribute resources– e.g. donating free medicines – but also notes that more than US$ 2 billion is still needed.

The WHO’s Roadmap also calls for increased R&D for treatments, but doesn’t go into much detail. Hence the question remains, how can we stimulate innovation to control and eradicate NTDs?

In a recent MSM-MGSoG-MERIT Joint Seminar presentation on 16 February 2012, Professor Nicola Dimitri from Maastricht School of Management and the University of Siena argued that from a R&D perspective NTDs are now less neglected than they were before the 2000s.

However much more needs to be done, particularly if the Roadmap’s goals are to be achieved and maintained. Dimitri discussed a number of recent initiatives to stimulate private sector innovation for better treatments.

These initiatives are at the forefront of thinking about public policies, procurement and innovation for socially desirable outcomes, and include push (such as public private partnerships), pull (such as advanced market commitments and priority review vouchers) and hybrid forms of incentives.

Thus (hopefully) in a few years’ time there may be no more ‘neglected’ tropical diseases. The only discordant note was sounded in December 2011 by a G-Finder (Global Funding for Innovation for Neglected Diseases) report which asked ‘is innovation under threat?’ With many rich countries facing high debt burdens and implementing fiscal austerity measures, funding for innovation has been declining.

The report documents that funding for innovation on neglected diseases was slashed by over US$ 100 million in 2010, mostly in European countries. For instance Sweden cut its funding for NTD innovation by 43 per cent, the Netherlands by 39 per cent, Denmark 49 per cent, Spain 30 per cent, Germany 12 per cent and Norway by 20 per cent.  A neglected consequence of the austerity pandemic in Europe is thus the further neglect of NTDs.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance

Six Key Themes for Eco-innovation

Speak of eco-innovation and people immediately think of electric cars and solar power. But the shift to a post-carbon economy depends on much more than technological improvements. It requires a sea change on many levels, from individual lifestyles to commercial investment to international governance.

As of 2012 almost all nations have created policies to stimulate innovation. These are based on two theoretical rationales: a market failure rationale that says that because of the danger of imitation companies will underinvest in innovation, and a system failure rationale that says that the source of underinvestment may lie outside the company (lack of venture capital, barriers to entry).

The latter perspective sees innovation activities as part of a system of knowledge generation, diffusion and use. Here national innovation capacity is shaped by education and training systems, the macroeconomic and regulatory context.

Both perspectives provide general rationales to stimulate innovation but the policies are often mistaken or unnecessary. In many cases they create windfall profits for recipients, providing push when pull is needed and, by being technology-blind (but not neutral), favour incumbents instead of challengers.

We face a double bind. Those who argue for policy coordination usually don’t say much about how this is to be done; while those who favour generic policies turn a blind eye to the need for specific policy to deal with specific barriers (in market entry, regulation, costs).

I wanted to write about this because discussions about eco-innovation are in many cases highly superficial or unnecessarily abstract. This blog is based on a longer article for S.A.P.I.E.NS, where I presented 10 key themes for eco-innovation. Of these I will now focus on six.

Theme 1: Eco-innovation policies should be based on identified barriers
To be effective and not wasteful, innovation policy should be based on identified barriers to particular types of eco-innovation instead of on abstract notions of market failure and system failure. Here are some examples from a 2011 Eurobarometer survey (click to enlarge):

Theme 2: Preventing windfall profits
A drawback of financial support policies is that projects receiving support would also be undertaken in the absence of support. An evaluation in 2002 of the Dutch WBSO fiscal scheme consisting of a subsidy on researcher costs revealed that in 72 per cent of the cases where companies with more than 200 employees use the WBSO, the scheme had no impact on the carrying out of a project. For 4 per cent only it was a deciding factor. For smaller companies the results are more favourable but still not very positive. For all class categories the deciding impact was below 25 per cent.

Theme 3: Specific versus general support
Specific support for R&D has a bad name amongst economists, much more than the generic fiscal support policies, for the reason that ‘government cannot pick winners’. Whilst there is an element of truth in this contention, we have just seen that blind innovation support can be wasteful too. Specific technologies such as algae-based fuels and organic solar cells suffer from specific barriers that no general support scheme can successfully address, which is why we need specific policies. Specific support for specific technologies is not about picking winners but about dealing with specific barriers.

Theme 4: Balance of policy measures and timing
While R&D policy can help facilitate the creation of new environmentally friendly technologies, it provides little incentive to adopt these technologies. Adoption, so important for post-innovation improvements, calls for demand-side measures. Pull policies do not make push policies unnecessary. The need for a balance between supply and demand measures is illustrated by the experiences with the EU emissions trading system (ETS) for carbon emissions. The ETS is the cornerstone of European climate policy, covering 10,800 industrial installations across Europe in four energy-intensive sectors. The total value of carbon trade amounted to 100.5 billion USD in 2008 and 118.5 billion USD in 2009. It was introduced in part because it was believed to stimulate innovation in low-carbon technologies but largely failed to have this effect according to evaluations.

Theme 6: Missions for system innovation
Among innovation experts there is a discussion of whether persistent problems such as global warming warrant mission-oriented programmes. Superficially, the attention to missions seems like a return to the emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s on public goals to guide science and technology development.  There is however a big difference between the old missions about space and military technology and the new mission for environmentally sustainable development: the older projects developed radically new technologies through government procurement projects that were largely isolated from the economy.

Mission-oriented projects for sustainable development require the adoption of new technologies and practices across a wide range of sectors as well as changes in consumer demand and behaviour. This brings many actors into the process and will require a range of policies and customized solutions to deal with the many barriers. Innovation missions require policy coordination across sectors and levels of government. Much of the current attention is on high tech options such as advanced batteries for cars. But CO2 reductions can also be achieved through policies to reduce car-based mobility, through improved public transport, organized car sharing and intermodal systems of transport with an important role for bicycles. Innovation policy should be more concerned with system changes than it currently is. Instead of being concerned with technologies, policies should be concerned with innovation, especially innovations that require a long period of development and long-term investment, which require the involvement of many actors for their development, creating problems of coordination of interdependent activities and problems of appropriating the benefits.

Theme 8: Innovation portfolio
For sustainable development and green growth it is advisable that government support be given to a broad portfolio of options: to widen the search process, which often is unduly narrow. There should also be a good mix between low-risk and high-risk projects. By relying on adaptive portfolios, two possible mistakes of sustainable energy policy may be prevented: 1) the promotion of short-term options resulting from the use of technology-blind generic support policies such as carbon taxes or cap and trade systems (which despite being ‘technology-blind’ are not technology neutral at all because they favour low-hanging fruit and regime-preserving change, and 2) picking losers (technologies and system configurations which are suboptimal) through technologyspecific policies.

The case for eco-innovation policy is particularly strong: first because the benefits are undervalued in the market place, and second because power supply and transport are ‘locked in’ to old technologies.

Markets rarely help eco-innovation because prices do not reflect environmental costs; and this is especially the case for green energy, hampered by the low cost of fossil fuels, long development ‘lead’ times, and grid connection issues. I therefore recommend specific support policies for green innovation beyond existing technological paradigms.

However different types of eco-innovation require different policies. Incremental improvements of commercial products rarely need special support, as firms are normally able to produce and fund these. By contrast radical and system innovations need much more support, especially radical transformative innovations. So I advocate strong support for transformative innovation, embracing not only financial but also institutional change in the economic and social world.

Regarding climate change and energy security, EU policy makers have broadly welcomed the concept of ‘mission’ policies (without specifically using the word mission). There is indeed a need for mission policies but the goal of such policies should not be about developing technologies but much more about ensuring the adoption of innovations. To avoid lock-in, these missions should be based on a portfolio of technologies backed up by adaptive policy making, evolving with experience and critical self-evaluation.

To design and roll out effective policies, government officials need to fully understand eco-innovation barriers and innovation dynamics. Blind technology support, favoured by economists, generates little more than windfall profits and rarely sparks radical change. Meanwhile the case for fiscal policies seems weaker than the case for specific focused innovation policies.

In my opinion, much more support should be given to transformative innovation. The above mentioned themes — which are clearly interlinked — help focus attention on relevant policy issues. Effective policy depends on effective governance, both of which depend on policy learning and building long-term strategic perspectives.

René Kemp, Professorial Fellow, UNU-MERIT and ICIS

Reflections on Globelics 2011

BUENOS AIRES: The Global Network for Economics of Learning, Innovation, and Competence Building Systems (GLOBELICS) is an international network of scholars who apply the concept of ‘learning, innovation, and competence building system’ in developing countries, emerging economies and societies in transition.

This year the Globelics conference was held from 15th-17th November in Buenos Aires. Considering the large number of presentations and variety of research topics, the conference was well organized and the hosts did a splendid job to make the Buenos Aires conference a memorable one.

The event was like a walking bibliography of innovation studies and development, with many big names being present there. As in previous years, UNU-MERIT had a strong presence at the conference, and all our researchers, alumni and former visiting fellows made it feel like a family reunion.

Our director Luc Soete delivered one of the keynote speeches and then a group of UNU-MERIT senior scholars, researchers and PhD fellows presented their research, including Pierre Mohnen, Jacques Mairesse, Shyama Ramani, Micheline Goedhuys, Michiko Iizuka, Jojo Jacob, Francisco Aguayo,Salih Cevikarslan, Radhika Perrot, Alejandro Lavopa, Shuan SadreGhazi, Ezequiel Tacsir, Lilia Sturbin, Giorgio Triulzi and Daniel Vertesy.

What was interesting in this year’s conference was a special track on social and sustainable aspects of innovation, which were discussed under the theme ‘Inclusive Innovation’. In Latin America, with increasing inequality, ‘social warming’ has become a hot topic. IDRC Canada, which was one of the sponsors of the conference also organized an invitation-only workshop after the conference to discuss a new research agenda on Innovation for Inclusive Development. From UNU-MERIT, Shyama Ramani, Michiko Iizuka and Shuan Sadreghazi took part in the workshop.

It was also announced that next year’s Globelics conference will be held in Hangzhou, China, which the Chinese delegate referred to as ‘Paradise on Earth’.

Shuan Sadreghazi, PhD Fellow, UNU-MERIT