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Why academic freedom is essential for business success

May 09 2018 09:17
Morné Mostert

Dr Morné Mostert is director of the Institute for Futures Research, a strategic foresight unit at Stellenbosch University.(Picture Supplied)

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A successful country innovates. And innovation starts with new ideas. South Africa is in the rare and privileged position to have in its constitution Section 16: Freedom of expression. 

This includes freedom of the press, artistic creativity as well as academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. With such remarkable freedoms ensconced for all, is business fully leveraging the benefits of such intellectual freedom?

Academic freedom has two main requirements. The first is the freedom to select the target of investigation. This means that nothing is exempt from scientific inquiry. 

The search for truth must not be limited to certain areas of investigation while myth, spin, sentiment and ideology constitute the received wisdom in other domains.   

The target for investigation must, of course, be motivated on the appropriate foundations. Here the worlds of academia, journalism and the judiciary occasionally overlap. All three are concerned with the discovery of the truth. 

It may be argued, however, that while journalism and the judiciary are nevertheless hungry for the truth, academia concerns itself with the discovery of new truths, i.e. the production of knowledge not previously generated. 

This principle is essential for business as it enables the posing of new questions. It presents novel avenues for investigation which may help business to move beyond choosing from existing options simply with better spreadsheets.

In a country like South Africa, with limited resources and urgent developmental needs, it is with some justification that the debate arises on the utilitarian value of both business profit and academic research. 

For business, the critique from society often centres on whether:

- Profit was generated with due consideration of the society, and

- Profit will be shared equitably in the society.

It may be argued that an investigation of the profit motive is far too narrow an interrogation of business, which ultimately contributes to society in myriad ways, not least of which is the generation of jobs, the offering of expanded choice and the presentation of innovative solutions which would not otherwise have existed. 

But such innovative solutions as a value offering can only come from a comprehensive ecosystem of innovation. If business fails to offer the consumer innovation, then it may be argued that the murky world of the profit motive will loom ever larger in the consciousness of the public mind.

If society is tacitly suspicious or patently critical of academia, it is often on the question of relevance. As the harbinger of new knowledge emerging on the distant horizons, the question is often whether research at universities should be curiosity-driven, i.e. inspired by the inquisitiveness of the researcher, or context-driven, i.e. enthused by the challenges lurking in the social environment of the university. 

This apparent conundrum (surely a false dichotomy) may be easily dissolved. By connecting with academia more aggressively, business will have access to research that should be unencumbered by the limitations of the target of investigation. 

In this way, academic freedom offers business greater autonomy to operate and further simultaneously enhances the social relevance of academic research.

The second requirement for academic freedom is the liberty (and, in the scientific method, indeed the obligation) to reach a valid conclusion and to communicate that finding without fear or favour. 

Like journalism and a court judgement, then, academic reportage must be allowed to flourish. 

There may be some contention as to whether publication in obscure academic journals is the best possible way to communicate such findings and the extent to which the society benefits from such erudite, apparently inaccessible channels of publication. 

Here, also, business is presented with a clear opportunity. It can both benefit from new research by exploring the systemic implications for its own value proposition and it can disseminate new knowledge by invigorating its own innovation across people, product and process and partnership inventiveness. 

The freedom for the communication of academic research further validates the innovation processes of business in the sense that business research may be based on the communicated discoveries of academic creativity. 

In this way business R&D builds upon and even extends the discoveries made by academia. A healthy, robust national culture of innovation may thus be created.

There is a clear opportunity for business and academia to forge stronger ties. By encouraging academic freedom, research is given the space to flourish.

It is true that both requirements of academic freedom above are balanced with the principles of ethical research. But ethics are really tested and our understanding thereof developed on the field of play. 

Authentic societal contribution that emerges from the business-academia nexus must be the true test. 

Through the discipline of ethical structured methods of inquiry a culture of intellectual transparency is enhanced and ideological obfuscation is reduced.

As we pursue enhanced levels of freedom in South Africa, the active pursuit and promotion of academic freedom may well offer the economic and intellectual liberation we so urgently require.

Dr Morné Mostert is the director of the Institute Futures Research (IFR), a strategic foresight and advisory institute at Stellenbosch University. The IFR is the first and only institute for futures research on the African continent. For more information visit www.ifr.sun.ac.za

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