Debate “Education, Research & Innovation: developing concrete synergies”

From ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 2nd millennium BC, geometry has always been a major source of inspiration to define and bond key concepts of everyday life. In this report, I am not going to talk about the history of geometry or discuss the questions of shape, size, or the properties of space. Rather, I am going to highlight a specific shape and discuss its characteristics that define the topic of interest of this report. So, from the world of geometry, a special focus is made on the triangle shape as it can represent and link three main concepts of everyday life, namely “education”, “research” and “innovation” via its three corners, leading to the “knowledge triangle” concept which is the core of this report

My name is Zaineb Chelly Dagdia, and I am a Marie Sklodowska Curie (MSC) Research Fellow (IF) at Aberystwyth University, UK. I act as an MSC ambassador, serve as a role model to young scientists and I am enthusiastically involved in several activities for encouraging scientists to excel in their career and to promote gender equality. As an MSC ambassador, I was delighted to be invited as a panellist for the debate “Education, Research & Innovation: developing concrete synergies” which was held at the Parlamentarium in Brussels, Belgium on the 26th of September 2018. It was a pleasure for me to be on board together with the co-panellists (1) Sophie Beernaerts, Head of unit MSCA, (2) Lieve Wierinck, Member of the European Parliament, (3) Rahul Bansal, Deputy Director of Education, European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), (4) Janet Metcalfe, Head of Vitae, and (5) Gareth O’Neill, President EURODOC.

The event welcomed a number of young visitors, members of the European Parliament, members of the European Commission, and researchers funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). The audience was greeted by Mr. Dimitrios Papadimoulis, Vice-President of the European Parliament, the panel discussion was opened by Mr. Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, and the professional moderator Christophe Robeet facilitated the debate.

In this report, I will share with you my philosophy about how I see the knowledge triangle as well as my beliefs on how to keep this bond between the different triangle’s corners as much tied as possible to make a great impact on re-launching the economic growth, on creating new job opportunities, and to improve our society’s standard living.

First, let me share with you why the topic of the debate was very important for me. Actually, the topic speaks to me from its different angles, and this is based on the role I play in each of these three key context areas: “education”, “research” and “innovation”: To begin with, from the institutional perspective, and as an associate professor, it is important for me to provide my students with the right skills, competence and mind-sets for the job market as well as for their personal lives. It is crucial to offer them a variety of courses that contains topics with real life relevance, and not simply theoretical knowledge. Today, theoretical knowledge is very easy to get, specifically with the easy access to all the needed resources via internet for instance. It is one of my responsibilities to ensure that the designed courses have this dynamic and multidisciplinary aspect to meet the needs of both students and society and improve skill-matching between companies and graduates. Indeed, with all what we live today as innovations and high technologies, and as the work of today is increasingly about applying knowledge, it is important for students to work in multidisciplinary groups and interact with different stakeholders via internships for instance. For master and doctoral students for example, it is critical that they conduct research within these multidisciplinary groups where the same topic is approached form different angles leading to a greater impact and a more solid basis for doctoral studies and greater benefit for the university in general. Therefore, I have to ensure training my students in all levels on the latest technologies in companies, and to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in them by offering specific courses such as management or business plan development courses, as well as by involving them in several activities such as the creation of spin-offs and academic start-ups, production of intellectual property rights, etc. They need the mind-set, skills and knowledge to generate creative ideas, and the entrepreneurial initiative to turn those ideas into actions. However, it is important to highlight that this is only feasible if the educational system is based on such philosophy.

Now as a researcher, it is very important for me to interact and communicate with non-academic partners to not only benefit from this transfer of knowledge but also to contribute to innovation. I will definitely learn from them how they handle their projects from a technical perspective, learn about their technologies and also their needs and encountered challenges when solving their technical issues. This will definitely enhance the quality of research in general, increase research potential, improve the competitiveness of research activities and create more career opportunities for researchers. Meanwhile, this also helps in bringing this know-how to my students making contributions to their future academic career. On the other hand, it is one of my duties to bring to industry the latest achievements in research, and apply my contributions in my domain of interest to help partners solve their issues. For example, as an MSC fellow, I had the opportunity to collaborate with epidemiologists at Hopital Hotel Dieu in Paris, France within two secondments planed in my MSC project. Today, epidemiologists are facing a large amount of data for cancer incidence prediction. This data can be called as big data which is characterized by its large volume, its variety such as images, texts, and videos, its velocity which is the speed of creating and getting data from different sources, and its veracity which is how trustful data is specifically when encountering missing data if one patient for instance did not fill all the required information in a form. So, it becomes crucial to help epidemiologists get valuable and meaningful information from big data for cancer incidence prediction. Using traditional and standard techniques cannot be a solution as they are enable to deal with neither the big data’s computational requirements nor with their characteristics. Therefore, I applied novel techniques that I developed in my MSC project which is in the form of an optimized big data mining framework [Link]. My innovative idea was to hybridize different key disciplines from mathematics, big data and randomized search heuristics for optimization to handle big data from different perspectives and this is based on the inter-disciplinary nature of my project. Our results were very promising as our methods could offer insights into the selected risk factors, speed up the learning process, ensure the performance of the cancer prediction model and help epidemiologists make better decisions.

From an industrial perspective, it is important to communicate the findings that we obtained with the general public as this will promote the visibility of the company. So, we have communicated the fruit of our collaboration in leading international conferences where we have interacted with some other interested parties. But still, it is important to mention that sometimes it is difficult to convince non-academic partners that you have the right tools that you want to apply to solve their issues. Sometimes, it is difficult for them to accept the change as they want you to use their traditional techniques because they have never heard about search heuristics for instance. I think this remains a challenge as companies should become more conscious of the interest of research for innovation and give us the chance to apply our knowledge and our new algorithms.

I definitely believe that we should focus on each of the three different key context areas, and give them an equal importance. For instance, the role of research is especially to produce more foresight knowledge to be used in education and in innovation. Based on that, teaching and learning get better understanding of competence needs. Definitely, education should not be treated as in input within the context of human resources. Similarly, innovation should not be confined to the bottom of the knowledge creation proves and to be considered as an output of education and research. There should be an equilibrium on the effort put to promote or focus on each of the three key context areas of the knowledge triangle. Hence, I obviously cannot see myself in a specific side of the knowledge triangle. As I previously mentioned, as an associate professor, I have to ensure that my students get both the right skills that meet companies needs and the most adequate doctoral program for instance to have an interdisciplinary philosophy. So, in this case, my role is to promote both corners: innovation and education. As a researcher, and via my trainings, internships and secondments, I contribute to industry innovations via the application of my research fields, and via the obtained promising results, I am involved in increasing its visibility in the competitive market. On the other hand, I share with my students the know-how I gained through my practices. So again here, I work on promoting both corners which are innovation and education.

At this point and based on the role I play on each of these three corners of the triangle, I would like to share with you my understanding of the knowledge triangle concept. I believe that the knowledge triangle presents a key concept highlighting the critical role that we all have in promoting education, research and innovation, and in allocating an equal importance to each of these three corners as they mutually interact and influence each other. I also believe that the knowledge triangle is about building this solid network to improve the quality of education, to promote better research with a national and international impact, and to build promising environments for innovations.

However, despite the efforts we are making to keep the bond tied, unfortunately there are still many problems that we notice that weaken the knowledge triangle impact. Among these, I mention the fragmented systems at the research and educational institutions, a weak entrepreneurial culture of our students, and a limited cooperation between higher education, research and business.

It is definitely crucial that all the actors of the knowledge triangle ranging from the higher education institutions, private companies, public research institutions to state authorities get all together engaged and involved to work together to solidify the knowledge triangle concept, and ensure its successful application to support the development of the economy and to improve our society’s standard living. For sure, there are several rooms for improvements that the various players from the EU, member states, institutions, and researchers can consider for a better application of the knowledge triangle.

For the member states for instance, they can work on a pedagogical reform where they can plan a variety of study models to provide flexible and personalized learning opportunities, improve specialties training programs, improve curricula, and make education more responsive to business and societal demands. They can also work on involving the private sector/industry in education. This will definitely help graduates be more in demand as they will have the right skills, and help them to be prepared for the needs of the dynamic business market.

For researchers, I believe that they should participate in the supervision of master projects and theses, and do their research in interdisciplinary labs and groups. This will give the researcher the chance to work in an interdisciplinary environment, have different kinds of feedbacks from other experts who see the researcher’s domain from a different angle, and learn how to work with researchers from different domains and who think differently.

From an institutional perspective, it would be of a great interest if they orient practical work and assignments to research questions, and plan career workshops/seminars to prepare students in all levels for their future employment search. It is also interesting to improve institutional practices via internationalization by encouraging mobility of students and staff for learning and teaching training activities, and by opening recruitment for international staff and students. This will definitely incentive the modernization of universities enabling to bring new expertise and having a new know-how philosophy. Another suggestion can be the possibility of merging some institutional departments as this can lower costs and increase efficiency as there will be a closer interaction between the departments. Hence, benefiting not only from this exchange of knowledge but also from the possibility to use the gained costs in improving research equipment for instance. Institutions should also work harder in developing student’s entrepreneurial, leadership and management skills to prepare them to their next professional career.

Now for the EU I suggest offering new incentive and funding structures by creating new funding opportunities for researchers from any nationality. This may significantly increase the quality of research. The policies of the EU should also promote the expansion of academic cultures beyond research excellence and teaching alone towards innovation and the – development of solutions for socioeconomic challenges. Adding to this, it would be interesting to increase the participation of young people in democratic life, especially in discussions with policy makers.

To conclude, I would like to say that this mutual co-operation between these three aspects of the knowledge triangle is fundamental as it helps universities improve the quality of research, develop relevant curricula and approaches to teaching and highlights their reputations signaling their high reputability and high quality. This leads to increase the university attractiveness for its future students, and increases funding opportunities as well. This can also help in shaping the social, demographic and cultural structures of a region that attracts international experts to the university and research institutes, creates new business and draws new international companies to the area, and hosts cultural activities. All this has a great impact on re-launching the economic growth, creates jobs, and improves society’s standard living. So, let us all work together to strengthen the knowledge triangle.

Zaineb Chelly Dagdia
Marie Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow
Aberystwyth University, United Kingdom

ACM Logo