The greatest innovation is the one that has done the most to allow knowledge to be pursued with impunity, while maximising its impact in society: the ‘unity of research and teaching’ that characterises the mission of the modern university. This mission was the brainchild of the Prussian education minister Wilhelm von Humboldt who first applied it to the University of Berlin in 1810. In today’s terms, Humboldt reinvented the university as an institution dedicated to ‘the creative destruction of social capital’.
On the one hand, research emerges from networks of particular scientists, investors and other stakeholders who are tempted to restrict the flow of benefits to themselves. On the other hand, the university’s commitment to education compels that such knowledge be taught to people far removed from this social capital base, who may in turn take what they learn in directions that erase whatever advantage the original network enjoyed. All of this is to the good: It contributes to the overall enlightenment of society, while spurring the formation of new networks of innovation.
Unfortunately, this virtuous cycle is short-circuited as academics are increasingly encouraged to think of teaching and research as necessarily trading against each other.
Steve Fuller is author of The Intellectual (Icon, 2005) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies (Routledge, 2006) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), The New Sociological Imagination (Sage, 2006) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), and The Knowledge Book: Key Concepts in Philosophy, Science and Culture (Acumen, 2007) (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).