The Endless Transition:

A "Triple Helix" of University‑Industry‑Government Relations

Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff 

Minerva (forthcoming)




Newly industrializing, de‑industrializing and re‑industrializing nations, somewhat to their surprise, find that they share a mutual interest in fostering knowledge‑based economic and social developments requiring the creation of boundary‑spanning mechanisms. Despite their quite different developmental histories, a broad spectrum of societies, formerly conceptualized under the divergent rubrics of the first, second, and third worlds, have formulated innovation strategies based upon the deliberate elaboration of academic‑industry relations through reflexive science, technology, and innovation policies.


The position of the sciences in society is changed accordingly.  For example, the transformations affect the production of scientific knowledge by providing science with new applications contexts.1. The character of the competition among nation states has been networked in terms of mandates for regional and supra‑national institutions (for instance, at the level of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, etc.).  Enterpreneurship in technologically advanced networks requires different time horizons for assessment, new criteria for success, and therewith a restructuring of the nature of the business itself. 

The network character transforms the matrix of disciplinary and institutional organization among and within the sciences. Universities and firms are assuming tasks that were formerly largely the province of the other.  The boundaries between public and private, science and technology, university and industry are in flux. As the university crosses traditional boundaries in developing new linkages to industry, it devises formats to make research, teaching, and economic development compatible.  How is the role of the university as a source of independent expertise affected by these changes?


The University's Third Mission


Academic research capacities have arisen from a variety of impetuses in different countries.  Some capabilities emerged as an outgrowth of the training of students. Others were left behind as a colonial heritage.  Still others were created to gain national prestige by contributing to international science. Whatever their origin, a common interest in a "third mission" for the university, in addition to teaching and research, has emerged worldwide. Along with these developments, a parallel set of issues has arisen on the other side of the traditional academic‑industrial divide.


A science‑based company can no longer be an island unto itself. In a highly competitive global environment it is necessary to access sources of knowledge and technology outside the firm.  Companies increasingly look to universities, as well as other firms and government laboratories, as a potential source of useful knowledge and technology, especially in biotechnology and software. Cooperative initiatives are emanating from both the academic and industrial spheres, often encouraged by government, at the regional and national levels, and by multi‑national organizations.


Just as companies seek new ways to collaborate with academic research groups, universities also want to expand their role in the economic development of their region.  A variety of ways have been created, going well beyond traditional means such as graduation of students and consultation, to bridge the gap.  The creation of intermediary offices, spin‑off firms, science parks, and other interface mechanisms has raised a new set of issues about the role of academia in society, beyond traditional concerns about community service, on the one hand, and academic freedom, on the other. Conflicts of interest, intellectual property,]and limited secrecy are among the new terms of policy debate among academics, government science policy officials, and industrial laboratory directors.


Since the late 1980's the interface between academia and industry has been increasingly identified as a factor of economic growth, a source of new products and companies, on the one hand, and of flows of knowledge to existing firms, on the other. The strengthening ties between the two institutional spheres is also seen as a force reshaping the mission of the university, both positively and negatively.  An increased focus on identifying potential external research providers reflects changes in the corporation, from internally producing its own R&D to drawing more on external sources. This reorientation reflects a new focus on licensing and spinning out internally developed technology, not relevant to existing or projected business goals.


Just as universities have internalized a technology transfer function, corporations that traditionally left technology not directly related to their strategic direction "on the shelf" now view it as a business opportunity. Large firms with tech‑transfer capabilities, in both the US and Japan, are also getting into the firm formation business. In this, they follow the path of universities, whose initial involvement in technology transfer took place through licensing to external sources, and then moved on to include the creation of new firms from faculty and student generated technologies.


Venture capitalists now advise young scientists to stay in the university where you will have students who can work with you to develop your technology. You will have an infrastructure; you will be able to develop your technology to the next stage and you will get support from the university and even academic credit.  The university likely has an incubator and increasingly its own venture fund and thus even the financing for a faculty or student organised firm could come from the university taking the role of venture capitalist.


Normative Change in Science


A normative change in science has taken place as a result of internal changes within academia, strengthened and diffused by government policy. The Mertonian model of science is often seen as being an invariant set of principles that have moved beyond history.  Yet the very basis of Merton's formulation of the norms of science was an analysis of the underlying conditions and social groups, and how they interacted in the 17th century to create these norms. It was never a part of this set of ideas to be outside of history. 2 The normative structure of science was always potentially open to change even though, perhaps Professor Merton felt in a deep way that such a change would never take place.


The capitalisation of knowledge has replaced disinterestedness as a norm of science. This new norm has arisen not only from the practices of industrial science and the emergence of an entrepreneurial dynamic within academia but from the external influences on the university, from government polices such as the indirect ones that changed the rules for disposition of intellectual property arising from federally funded research and from direct industrial policies, as well. Concretized in organizational forms such as technology transfer offices and the requirements of government granting programs for the support of research; the capitalisation of knowledge changes the way that scientists view the results of their research.


The Triple Helix


Although a failure as a theorist of socialism, Karl Marx was a prescient forecaster of the emergence of academic‑industry relations. Taking note of Perkins research on dyestuffs in England during the 1840s, Marx predicted the growth of science based industries.3  Although, a synthetic dyestuffs industry based upon chemical research did not appear in England at that time; one soon grew up in Germany in the mid‑nineteenth century. 4  It is as important in the late twentieth century to understand the significance of new formats of knowledge‑based economic development as they arise, in nucleo, in miniature forms, as it was for Marx. A century and a half later, the bilateral mode of science‑based economic development adumbrated by Marx is still in an incipient stage even as a trilateral mode is appearing.


A spiral model of innovation is required to capture the evolution of multiple linkages at different stages of the capitalization of knowledge. How do these developments in the knowledge infrastructure affect the intellectual organization of the disciplines?  Is there a co‑evolution between new technologies and developments in their cognitive and institutional environments? 


There are four dimensions to the development of the triple helix model: the first is internal transformation in each of the helices; the second is the influence of one helix upon another; the third is the creation of a new overlay of institutional structures from the interaction among the three helices; the fourth is a recursive effect of these entities, both on the spirals from which they emerged and on the larger society.  Among the effects, the degree to which academic‑industrial collaboration changes the role of the university as a source of disinterested expertise must be examined.


Beyond the Linear Model


The ideology of basic research was created in the late 19th century to protect a relatively weak academic sphere from untoward outside influences. The triumph of this ideology weakened academic connections to industry at the time.  The concept of basic research culminated in the linear model of innovation, a one‑way flow from fundamental to applied research and to product development.


 The linear model is currently being supplanted by new ideas and alternative models based upon interdisciplinarity and spiral feedback links between technology and science. Perhaps ironically, this shift reflects the substantial growth and practical contributions of the academic research enterprise in both wartime and peacetime.


Beyond the "Endless Frontier" of linear models lies a continuous series of experiments on the relationship among science, industry and government in creating the conditions for future innovation: the "Endless Transition." Although the endless transition is an international phenomenon, it does not follow a single course. Nevertheless, the goal is the same: how to build upon existing resources to create niches of technological innovation and secure a place within the division of labor in the global economy.


There is no fixed end point to transition nor are only the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern European countries in transition: so are the US, Asia, Western Europe and Latin America. There is increasing recognition of the necessity for a significant, but not totalizing, role for the state in science and technology policy. There is also a developing awareness that government plays a strong, if not always obvious, role in S&T policy in the US.


During the Cold War US science policy was based on dual premises, one overt and one implicit, relating, on the one hand, to the long‑term utility of basic research and, on the other, to expected military applications.  The end of the Cold War has brought with it a lessening in the force of military justifications. At the same time, the increase in international competitiveness for US industry has led to pressures for shorter term applications of research in the economy. A variety of measures have been put in place to achieve this goal, including an enhanced role for academic research in the national innovation system and European‑like government supported technology programs to spur industrial innovation.


The Future Legitimation of Science


The contribution of scientific specialties such as solid‑state physics and molecular biology to the growth of old industries and the foundation of new ones has given rise to a new ground for legitimation of science as the source of high‑technology. This theme harks back as well to the founding charter of modern science as set forth by Francis Bacon in which science based industrial growth and understanding of nature were joint and complementary purposes of science. This vision held sway until the late nineteenth century split between pure and applied science, engineered by physicists such as Henry Rowland who believed they could generate sufficient support for their science. This cultural divide is currently disappearing under pressure from scarcity of resources and convergence between addressing areas of fundamental science such as the Human genome and meeting societal concerns such as economic growth. 


The increased relevance of science to future economic development means that funds for research must now be distributed to all areas of the country.  It is no longer acceptable for funds to be distributed almost entirely to the existing centres of research that are concentrated in a few regions, primarily on the east and west coasts and a few locations in the Midwest.  All regions want a share of research funding because they are now aware that it is the basis of future economic growth. That is why the peer system breaks down. That is why funding is made on other bases such as direct Congressional appropriations for research centers at local universities.  These practical political considerations have been raised to an explicit policy level in Europe where goals of achieving cohesion and rectifying regional imbalances are built into the European Union's Framework Programs for technological and economic development.


The traditional legitimations for support of science still hold, the cultural one and to some extent the military. Health, of course, remains a strong stimulus to research funding. The future legitimation for scientific research that will keep funding at a high level is that it is the basis of economic growth. Economic development often occurs through newly created disciplines. These disciplines are not created purely out of previous science, the way Joseph Ben David analyzed the splitting off of new disciplines from old ones in the 19th century. 5. New disciplines are more recently created through synthesis.  Syntheses of practical and theoretical interests, elements of older disciplines such as electrical engineering, a bit of psychology and philosophy and a machine, were made into computer science. Similar processes, combining government, industrial and academic interests, were at work in creating material science and the other sciences that are on everyone's critical technology list.


Conclusion: The Endless Transition


Freeman and Perez have noted that what we have seen in technology in recent years, especially in micro‑electronics, informatics and biotechnology, are quantitative changes becoming qualitative changes. 6 Fundamental change is also occurring at the organizational and institutional levels within and between university, industry and government that constitute a new innovation environment, replacing the linear model.  Bilateral government‑industry and university‑industry ties have expanded into trilateral relationships at the regional, national and multi‑national levels.  Encouraged by government, universities have become a key element in innovation policies throughout the world, both as a source of technology for start‑up firms and older companies.


Nevertheless, although the demise of the linear model has been repeatedly proclaimed its assumptions and categories still permeate scholarly analysis and government policy making. The thesis of a unidirectional flow from basic research to development to production, handed off across organizational boundaries, captured several key features of innovation systems during the post war era. Old industries that could count on going through a slow process of innovation, moving things from the lab, into development, into production, finally marketing‑‑‑the linear model was not working any more.


Government and industry, transcending developmental and sectoral categories, have revised their view of the uses of science. As Kaghan & Barnett argued, the laboratory model of innovation is replaced with a desktop model.7 What is emerging is a plethora of programs, alliances, and centers through which universities, governments and companies cooperate even as they compete. For these relationships to flourish, and be more than formal requirements as in the old Eastern European model, the institutions in each sphere must have an independent existence. They must have the ability to negotiate arrangements from a position of some strength and thereby protect their special interests, for example, academic freedom to publish. 


Such a science policy is as relevant to countries in the process of establishing independent spheres as it is to societies attempting to foster innovation by reducing the separation among their economic, political and academic institutions.  Relationships freely entered into among universities, industry and government, to translate scientific research into economic and social development, go beyond the received practices of both capitalism and socialism.


The terminology of "economies in transition" has hitherto referred primarily to the situation of Middle and Eastern Europe.  These countries have most severely suffered from a crisis caused by the global transition to a knowledge based economy. 8. The economies in Eastern Europe are no longer the only ones considered to be "in transition." 9  The complex dynamics of social relations between institutionalized spheres is increasingly locked into a regime of technological innovation and organizational reform.


 In the Triple Helix model, the knowledge base of this economy is analyzed in terms of university‑industry‑government relations. Whenever an overlay of institutions is culturally achieved, a resonance provides potential feedback on the interacting institutions.  In the static analysis, the assessment from the network perspective then tends to become different from that of institutional actors.  The complex network transforms the systems on which it rests.  Dynamically, the transformations have profound effects on the infrastructure of advanced societies, and consequently, on our reflexive understanding of these economies.


In short, Vannevar Bush'  metaphor of an Endless Frontier which has carried most of the advancement of the sciences from the mid‑twentieth century is to be modified into the terms of an Endless Transition.10  Sciences innovate all domains of social and economic life and the innovative environments feedback on the innovating agencies.  The transitions are expected to be complex, asynchronous, and asymmetrical.  They are the subject of the emerging field of the study of science, technology, and innovation and a new discipline of science and technology policy. 11


The "Triple Helix" special issue examines these transformations and the debate they have engendered.  Aldo Geuna develops quantitative indicators of the changing role of European universities. Blanka Vavakova argues the case for revivifying the traditional relationship between the university and society. Renato Dagnino and Lea Velho call for a new social contract in which the university plays a proactive role in social change. Henry Etzkowitz and Carol Kemelgor analyze the organizational change that occurs as the university undertakes larger scale research. These studies examine the relationship among university, industry and government, both empirically and normatively: what is it and what should it be?


The issue has hitherto been the classic query: "Science for Whom?"   In the newly emerging regime of an Endless Transition, one may be able to communicate across otherwise dividing lines, and thus be able to find new solutions to old problems, and to improve on modes of production in terms of using resources (including human capital) in a more sustainable way.  In a multi‑cultural context technological advancements can reflexively be used as a condition for the celebration of community. 12






1. Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, & Martin Trow, The New Production of Knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. (London: Sage, 1994)


2. Merton, Robert. K, "The Normative Structure of Science" [1942] In Storer, Norman ed. The Sociology of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).


3.Marx, Karl Capital (New York: Random House, 1976 [1866] See Braverman, Harry, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974 ) pp. 161f.]


4. Beer, John, The Emergence of the German Dye Industry. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,  1959.


 5. Ben David, Joseph. Scientific Growth. (Berkeley: University of California, 1991)


6. Freeman, Christopher and Perez, Carlota   `Structural crises of adjustment, business cycles and investment behaviour', pp. 38‑66 in: Dosi, Giovanni eds., Technical Change and Economic Theory. (London: Pinter, 1988)


 7. William N. Kaghan and Gerald B. Barnett,  "The Desktop Model of Innovation in Digital Media," pp. 71‑81 In Etzkowitz, Henry and Loet Leydesdorff (eds.) Universities and the Global Knowledge Economy: A Triple Helix of University‑Industry‑Government Relations.  (London: Cassell Academic, 1997)


8. Richta, Radovan et al. Civilizace na rezcesti.  Prag. (Frankfurt a.M.: Makol, 1971).


9. Etzkowitz, Henry. "Science and Industrial Policy: Beyond the Endless Frontier,"  pp 57‑66 In: Meske, Werner, Mosoni‑Fried, Judith Henry Etzkowitz,  Judith, Nesvetailov,  Gennady (eds.):Transforming Science and Technology Systems ‑ the Endless Transition?, NATO Science Series 4:Science and Technology Policy ‑Vol. 23,  (Washington DC: IOS Press, 1998)


10. Bush, Vannevar, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President. Reprinted (New York: Arno Press, 1980[1945])


11. Wouters, Paul, Jan Annerstedt, & Loet Leydesdorff.  The European Guide for the Study of Science, Technology, and Innovation. European Commission (DG XII), Brussels (forthcoming); .


12. Hayward, James, President and CEO of Collaborative Laboratories Inc., Presentation at the Triple Helix II Conference. State University of New York at Purchase, January, 1998.