1Patenting by universities and public research institutes has increased in Portugal and Spain, but an important lag with the EU average persists.
2Co-publication of scientific papers by academic and business researchers has also been on the rise but remains well below that of EU leaders.
3Only 6% of PhD holders in Portugal and Spain work in the business sector.
4The percentage of university R&D financed by the business sector is substantially higher in Spain (5.5%) than in Portugal (2%), though both remain below the EU average.
5Portugal and Spain have recently enriched their policy mix by launching new programmes aimed at building science-industry consortia and joint laboratories.
6In the coming years, a closer alignment between science and business will be critical for economic recovery in both countries.
Academic research, broadly defined as that conducted by universities and public research institutions, can have a strong impact on innovation by offering new strands of knowledge that can be used by firms to develop new products, services, and processes. However, this impact will be limited in the absence of efficient links that facilitate knowledge exchange and collaboration between science and business.
Portugal and Spain lag behind advanced European economies in key indicators of science-business links
This article shows that science-business links in Portugal and Spain are weaker than in more advanced European Union (EU) economies, although progress can be observed in recent years. The comparison focuses on the Europe of the Twenty-Seven (EU-27) average and on four specific Member States: two larger ones (France and Germany) and two smaller ones (Austria and Finland).
1. The number of academic patents is below the EU average
One way of measuring the intended impact of academic research on innovation is by looking into the patents generated by universities and public research institutes. As figure 1 shows, while both Portugal and Spain had fewer than fifty European Patent Office (EPO) applications per trillion euros in gross domestic product in the early 2000s, they have moved to around two hundred in the second half of the 2010s. Further, the relative gap of Spain and Portugal in relation to France and particularly Germany has been narrowing since the early 2000s, with a steeper increase for Portugal than for Spain in the past ten years. Austria and Finland have followed similar trends, approaching the European average in recent years.
2. The share of academic patents is higher, and the share of business patents lower, than the EU average
Figure 2 highlights the importance of academic patenting as a share of total EPO filings, above the European average. This high share is a natural consequence of the weak patenting performance of the Spanish and especially Portuguese business sector, but also reflects the significant upgrading of the scientific and technological capabilities of universities and public research institutes over the past two decades. Since at least the early 2000s, academic institutions in both Portugal and Spain have been establishing technology transfer offices and other similar structures, which has contributed to promoting the commercial potential of their technologies and exploiting patent portfolios. Since patent protection at the EPO is quite demanding and costly, academic entities in Europe often apply first for protection at their respective national patent offices, and only afterwards, if they are convinced of the economic potential of their inventions, apply for protection at the EPO.
3. Public-private co-publications are scarce
In addition to patents, scientific publications with co-authors from public and private institutions can be used to measure science-business links. Both Portugal and Spain stand substantially below the EU-27 average for this indicator (figure 3). There were 44 public-private co-publications per million population in Portugal and 53 in Spain in 2018, while the EU-27 average was 91, rising to as many as 149 in Germany. Nevertheless, a positive trend can be observed in both countries, with an increase of 30% in Portugal and 14% in Spain from 2012 to 2018, against an average increase of 13% in the EU-27 overall. In contrast with patenting, this indicator is useful for understanding science-business cooperation in academic research but should be considered with caution given its limitations. Co-publications focus on collaborations leading to results shared with the academic community in scientific journals, whereas science-industry links may more often lead to proprietary results, protected by patents, contracts, and confidentiality agreements. Although a trend towards more open science is also reaching science-industry links, public-private co-publications remain limited.
4. Few doctoral degree holders work in private firms
Academic institutions also contribute to business research and innovation by training researchers that may later be employed by firms. Data from 2017 show that 0.7% of the population aged 25-64 in Portugal and 0.75% in Spain held a doctoral degree (figure 4). This share is around half that of Germany and also stands well below the figures for Austria, Finland and France. Moreover, a common challenge in Portugal and Spain is the limited mobility of doctorate holders to the private sector.
According to the latest data from the OECD Careers of Doctorate Holders database, only around 6% of doctorate holders in Portugal and Spain work in private firms. To address this challenge, both countries have recently launched new public policy instruments to encourage the mobility of doctorate holders to the private sector.
Promoting the mobility of doctorate holders to the private sector
Over recent years, the governments of Portugal and Spain have launched new policy measures to increase the participation of doctorate holders in private firms.
In Spain, since 2001 the Torres Quevedo programme has provided incentives to private firms that hire doctorate holders. Successful applicants get subsidies to pay the doctorate holder’s salary and social security contributions for up to three years, with some variation depending on the type of company and type of project (industrial research, experimental development, or feasibility studies). In 2020, the Torres Quevedo programme had an annual budget of 15 million euros, similar to the previous year when 176 contracts were awarded.
Recent policy initiatives in Spain have focused on the pre-doctoral stage, offering grants in support of the development of "industrial doctorates". A state-wide programme was implemented in 2014 and many regional governments have their own programme within their territories (e.g., Andalusia, the Basque Country, Catalonia, Madrid, Navarre, Murcia, and Valencia). These programmes co-fund the contract of PhD students employed by firms, as well as their enrolment in doctoral studies and grants for research stays during the development of their PhD thesis, which must have business and academic co-supervisors. The annual budget of the national programme managed 4 million euros in 2020, with 61 contracts awarded in 2019.
Rather than subsidising salaries, Portugal has opted for tax incentives. The Portuguese tax incentives for R&D in firms explicitly support the hiring of doctorate holders for R&D, providing credits equivalent to 120% of their wage. Companies have been using these benefits at a growing pace since 2015, with a 30% increase in the number of PhDs hired by firms between 2016 and 2018.
Portugal has also emphasised the pre-doctoral stage, albeit through a different approach. The International Partnerships in Science, Technology and Higher Education, which started in 2006, bring together several Portuguese universities with leading international universities —including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Texas at Austin—, to develop doctoral and advanced studies programmes in critical fields with the aim of improving the employability and business orientation of doctoral graduates. Portuguese firms have become increasingly involved in these doctoral programmes, through an “industrial affiliation” programme that allows them to participate in research activities and in the training of specialised graduates. This has facilitated the creation of effective thematic networks through projects aimed at stimulating new knowledge and exploiting new ideas in collaboration with companies. For example, the MIT-Portugal Programme has focused on the field of “engineering systems”, with special emphasis on complex processes associated with industrial production, sustainable energy, bioengineering and transport systems, developing R&D in close cooperation with industrial affiliates.
Besides partnerships with foreign institutions, the mobility of professors and double affiliations with firms could be further exploited, taking advantage of Portuguese and Spanish researchers abroad and their international networks.
5. Fostering collaboration and co-funding
To promote science-industry cooperation in R&D, competitive funding schemes typically focus on collaborative projects involving partners from academia and business. This type of collaborative R&D grant has long been used in Portugal and Spain and represents one of the most important innovation policy instruments across EU countries. More recently, both countries have launched new public policy programmes aimed at building more ambitious science-industry consortia and joint laboratories with a focus on designated strategic research fields.
Policymakers in Portugal and Spain should also consider introducing new regulatory reforms and tax incentives to encourage private firms to fund further university research. As shown in figure 5, the percentage of higher education R&D financed by the business sector is substantially higher in Spain (5.5%) than in Portugal (2%). Despite both remaining well below the EU average, and still at greater distance from Germany, it is remarkable to note that the figure for Spain stands above France and Finland. Looking at the trend since 2007, the share in Spain has fallen substantially, while the opposite occurs in Portugal.
Building public-private R&D partnerships in strategic areas
Portugal and Spain have recently launched new policy programmes to set up R&D consortia between scientific institutions and firms through public-private partnerships. These consortia have been established in designated strategic research areas aligned with industry needs and societal challenges.
In 2014, in Spain, Challenges-Collaboration (“Retos Colaboración”) programme was launched to support experimental development projects carried out jointly by companies and research organisations over a 2-4 year period, addressing societal challenges through the development of new technologies, products, and services. Similarly, in 2020, the Centre for Technological and Industrial Development (CDTI) released the first call of the Science and Innovation Missions (“Misiones Ciencia e Innovación”) programme, leading to the selection of 24 large strategic R&D projects to be developed over 2-4 years by business consortia to solve major challenges in specific areas. This programme requires that at least 20% of the budget be subcontracted to universities and public research organisations. Most recently, in 2021, the Spanish Research Agency launched a new programme, called Projects in Priority Areas (“Proyectos en Líneas Estratégicas”), to support 3-year public-private and interdisciplinary collaboration projects in specific strategic areas, funded by the EU Recovery and Resilience Fund. The new call “Líneas” allows public research institutions to lead the projects, rather than just acting as subcontractors of projects managed by firms, as in the “Misiones Ciencia e Innovación” programme, or as participants in projects led by industry, as in the “Retos Colaboración” programme.
In Portugal, the Collaborative Laboratories (CoLABs) programme was initiated in 2018 to promote more intense science-industry collaboration through public-private partnerships and contribute to scientific employment. A CoLAB can be established either as a not-for-profit organisation or as a for-profit company. CoLABs have as partners research units of higher education institutions, public research laboratories, intermediary organisations, companies, and business associations. With a high share of private funding, they focus on performing applied research, providing professional R&D services to industry, and responding to societal challenges. The expectation is that these centres will operate under a funding structure of 1/3 public funding, 1/3 private funding and 1/3 competitive funding. A total of 35 CoLABs have been established to date, mobilising around 120 private firms.
These programmes that have been promoted in Portugal and Spain are in line with similar initiatives adopted in other European countries. They represent a shift from a focus on supporting ad-hoc, linear technology transfer transactions between separate parties towards the mobilisation of more ambitious science-industry collaboration to jointly undertake mission-oriented R&D. The Spanish policy mix for collaborative arrangements comprises more policy instruments than the Portuguese, eventually leading to some overlap and complexity. In contrast to the project-based focus of the Spanish programmes, the Portuguese approach creates joint labs as new legal entities over the long run, with the expectation of leading to more intense and open-ended public-private partnerships.
6. New horizons
In the next few years, science-industry cooperation and public-private partnerships will become critical for Portugal and Spain to efficiently absorb the new streams of European funding that will become available within the context of the Next Generation EU recovery plan. Considering the different policy experiences that both countries have attained in recent years, it would be of great interest to exchange knowledge and foster mutual learning. For example, Spain may learn from Portugal’s recent initiatives to develop joint labs with partners from academia and business and to create new doctoral schools in partnership with leading international institutions that contribute to enhancing the alignment of academic research with business needs. Conversely, after carefully evaluating Spain’s experience, Portugal might wish to consider the possibility of introducing new incentives to partly finance doctoral and postdoctoral researchers employed by firms, rather than just offering tax incentives.
The promotion of science-business links requires a variety of complementary policy instruments targeting both the academic and the business sides, offering incentives for both to collaborate. The policy mix should also cater for the variety of formal and informal channels through which science-industry knowledge exchange unfolds, avoiding the traditional bias towards patents, publications, and spin-offs. This bias may sometimes be driven more by the need to look good in rankings and evaluations based on quantitative indicators than by the desire to truly make knowledge transfer a priority in the missions and budgets of universities and research institutions. In particular, policies in Portugal and Spain should refocus more clearly towards people and networks of people, promoting intersectoral mobility and opportunities for dialogue and communication, as collaboration is ultimately driven by people rather than by institutions alone.
Another critical element is to simplify regulations, reducing barriers to public-private collaboration, intersectoral mobility of human capital and academic entrepreneurship so that solid science-business links can be built on trust and level playing fields over time. Unfortunately, these transformations cannot be achieved simply by changing the laws, by ensuring coordination across ministries and different policy levels, by reinforcing individual and institutional incentives to knowledge transfer, or even by “importing” international best practices. An overhaul of the industrial systems in Portugal and Spain will also be necessary. Policies actively addressing structural change should be promoted, bringing along new business practices and new companies that will make science-business interactions more effective. These changes require a combination of different public policies strengthening intermediary institutions, growth of technology-based firms and global technology partnerships, developing industrial and technical capabilities to embrace new market opportunities.
Manuel Mira Godinho, ISEG - Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon.
José Guimón, Faculty of Economics and Business Studies, Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM).
Catalina Martínez, Institute of Public Goods and Policies, Spanish National Research Council (IPP-CSIC).
Joana Mendonça, IN+ Centre for Innovation, Technology and Policy Research, IST, University of Lisbon.
CARTAXO, R., and M. GODINHO (2017): «How institutional nature and available resources determine the performance of technology transfer offices». Industry and Innovation, 24(7), 713-734.
GUIMÓN, J. (2019): «Policy initiatives to enhance the impact of public research. Promoting excellence, transfer and co-creation». OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, 81.
MARTÍNEZ, C., and L. BARES (2018): «The link between technology transfer and international extension of university patents: Evidence from Spain». Science and Public Policy, 45(6), 827-842.
MENDONÇA, J., and M. HEITOR (2016): «The changing patterns of industrial production: How does it play for the Iberian Peninsula?». Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 113, 293-307.
OCDE (2019): Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance. OCDE Publishing.
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