A methodological perspective on the evaluation of

the promotion of university-industry-government relations


Loet Leydesdorff

Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR)

Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX  Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Small Business Economics (forthcoming)




Evaluation criteria can be expected to differ with the institutional perspectives in university-industry-government relations. How can one use evaluation for the improvement of the innovative capacity of these networks? Indicators used for the evaluation, can be specified as variables in a model. The model can be used, among other things, to distinguish between intended and unintended outcomes of the practices under study. Institutionalized arrangements generate filters which stimulate innovation selectively. A focus on failures is fruitful for knowledge-based innovation since it allows for the further specification of expectations. The latter can also be turned into research questions.



University-industry-government relations can be considered as complex and adaptive networks of communication. Three functions have to be fulfilled by these systems: knowledge production, wealth generation, and (public and/or private) control at the relevant interfaces. However, these functions do no longer prescribe who takes which role. While the institutional missions of the different carriers predicate a distribution of labour among them, terms like the “entrepreneurial university” and the “knowledge economy” indicate that one can no longer assume a one-to-one correlation between functions and institutions. Particularly the function of knowledge generation seems to be shifting in this era of globalization.


In a complex arrangement one is no longer justified to assume that the objectives of evaluation are shared among the partners involved. Different expectations can be adjusted to each other in new forms of collaboration and knowledge transfer, but the carrying agencies also develop along their own trajectories according to their institutional rationalities. The science system itself is changing while entrained in these social transformation processes (e.g., Gibbons et al., 1994; Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 1997). The new techno-sciences like biotechnology and computer science do not build on strong institutional frameworks of discipline formation during decades. Different bodies of knowledge are selectively recombined in new programs, which are mission driven with reference to social problems and scientific puzzle-solving. Issues of quality control and validation across boundaries can then be expected to become pressing (Fujigaki & Leydesdorff, 2000).



The evaluation of performance, relations, and systems


The discussions and negotiations among the partners have an analytical and a normative component. While one option can be assessed as synergetic from the perspective of the collaboration, one may nevertheless wish to choose for one’s specific interests. At other moments, one may have good reasons to compromise. Not only the perspectives, but also the relevant partners can be changed over time. The dynamic perspective of the participants and the participation further complicates the evaluation.


Although functionality can be expected to prevail in the long-term, interests at each moment in time (or during shorter time spans) provide an institutional criterion for the evaluation. Questions can be raised like “What is best for us now?”; “Can we afford this investment?”, etc. The meta-question of how one defines the “us”, the “best” or the “now” in such questions leads to further questions without necessarily simple answers.


How can one proceed in the case of the evaluation of triple helix-type arrangements of university-industry-government relations? Let me contribute to these questions from a methodological perspective. In my opinion, there is first the problem of the nature of the indicators. In other words: what is indicated by the indicators? Second, a reflexive model of how the indicated variables are related, is always running in the background of the analysis. The indicators refer to variables of a system represented in terms of these indicators. Third, the evaluation may focus on the intended or the unintended outcomes (e.g., external costs). In the latter case, the variable language and geometrical metaphors have to be replaced with a language of contexts and fluxes. If everything is in flux, what can then function as a baseline for the evaluation? How is one able to compare between different points in time?




The choice of an indicator implies by definition a decision that can be discussed reflexively. The data never speak for themselves. For example, in the measurement of scientific output we have witnessed competition among schools measuring scientific performance in terms of publications, citations, and/or keywords (Leydesdorff, 1995). The various indicators address other layers of the scientific communication system. Relational indicators like co-authorship and co-word relations indicate network links, while performance indicators point to agency at the nodes.


Similarly, in the case of patenting one may wish to focus on patent portfolios, on patent clusters, on technological trajectories in terms of patent citations, etc. The various representations lead to different appreciations of the systems under study. One generates different (and sometimes perpendicular) windows on a complex dynamics. In many cases, the observed structure can be considered so robust that one finds similar structures however one constructs the indicator. On various indicators, for example, AT&T is a large company. However, the obvious cases do not provide us with much information. It is precisely when we are uncertain about the differences that one needs indicators.


The analyst can provoke the specification of the (implicit) theory by turning the attention from the observations to the expectations. Which system does one expect to be indicated by the indicators? The elaboration of this reflection improves the quality of the indicators because the theoretical reflection may enable us to specify the pros and cons of the specific measurement instrument. The measurement can then be made functional to a specification of what one wishes to measure.




Although the choice of a specific indicator can sometimes be made on pragmatic grounds (e.g., because of the availability of rich data), one has always to reason why a specific measurement would be valuable for the assessment. Does one wish to measure output or input? Input and output indicators can be related in terms of efficiency (= output/input) or in terms of other concepts (e.g., throughput). Furthermore, the evaluation should inform us about policy options, and therefore, provide information about relations between input (that is,  independent) variables and output (that is, dependent) variables.


As noted, one can expect the relevant output to be differently defined from both sides of an interface. For example, a university department may engage in relations with industry for a number of reasons. One of them can be purely financial, but there may be also reasons like opening new domains for future research, providing students with carreer opportunities, or even more idealistic ones like providing the regional environment with knowledge inputs. Whatever the incentives on this side, the firms involved will have another set of objectives. These may complement to those of the university, but they can only be made compatible because they are also different. Thus, the efficiency of the cooperation cannot be measured in terms of a single set of indicators. Other partners can be expected to entertain different indicators for the performance measurement.


Can a government agency take the role of an ‘objective’ arbiter? Government agencies, however, entertain bureaucratic criteria for the management. For example, one can always raise the question of whether the policy objectives have been achieved? Has unemployment gone down independent perhaps of the quality of the change processes which have been accomplished by the knowledge-intensive SMEs? The political discourse provides criteria for the evaluation different from economic performance and/or scientific and technical excellence.


Second-order evaluation


In a second-order model one does not assess only the cooperation, but also the feedback effects of the cooperation on the development of the partners themselves. For example, one can raise the question of whether a liaison office had an effect on academic research in the broader university context. Did the transfer officers only generate a clientele of academic advisors or did the transfer also have an impact on higher education? If so, how would one be able to measure this feedback?


Analogously, one can raise the question of what it means for small businesses to turn to the university for advice. How can one prevent a dependency relation as an unintended outcome? Is the shape and the substance of the relation different in the case of knowledge-intensive industries from enterprises which have no academics among their employees? Which difference does it make for an enterprise to turn to a university, to a branch organization or to a knowledge-intensive firm? Perhaps, the latter is better equipped for advice in turning the theoretical knowledge into practice than a university department. These issues have to be seriously discussed in an evaluation of the pros and cons of ongoing collaborations.


Note that in a second-order design, the focus is no longer on what happened, but on what could have happened or what did not (yet) happen. Each solution can be considered as a suboptimal one in a phase space of other possible solutions and at the structural level the specific solution locks us in into arrangements which may inhibit further innovation (Leydesdorff, 2001). A university transfer office, for example, can easily turn into a gatekeeper that hinders direct communication between university staff (and students) and entrepreneurs by monopolizing the communication (e.g., for administrative reasons)?


The Internet provides us with opportunities to directly address expertise at a worldwide scale and knowledge-intensive firms are often able to do so. At the University of Amsterdam, for example, we once experimented with disclosing information about available expertise and research profiles on floppy disks and CD-ROMs, but the university administration resisted the inclusion of contact information like direct telephone numbers because one was afraid that the academic staff would not be able to ask the right prices for their service and advice. Thus, these second-order considerations may have very concrete implications: how does the new operation fit into existing routines?


If successful, the development of the relations can be expected to disturb the normal routines of the relating agencies. Each system has various options for handling these disturbances. One can try, for example, to construct an interface like a transfer office for regulating the flows of communication or one can use the input for educational reform, e.g., in the case of exploring new markets for student enrolements. Similarly, the enterprise involved in the collaboration may wish to entertain a window on the market of relevant knowledge and expertise or it may wish to use this window as a competitive advantage.


Thus, one returns to the questions of what is being measured by the indicators and what is being promoted by the policies? Whose interests are served with which promotion? How can interests be aligned for the further development of a knowledge-based economy, for example, at the level of a region? But analogously: which institutions and (old-boys) networks have hitherto prevented a free flow of information across institutional boundaries; which elements of the system are the next candidates for “creative” destruction; which institutions should be devolved? Such questions require a focus on failures in addition to an evaluation of the “best practices.”





Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, and Martin Trow, 1994, The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage.

Etzkowitz, Henry and Loet Leydesdorff (eds.), 1997, Universities and the Global Knowledge Economy: A Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations  London: Cassell Academic.


Fujigaki, Yuko and Loet Leydesdorff, 2000, ‘Quality Control and Validation Boundaries in a Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations: ‘Mode 2’ and the Future of University Research,’ Social Science Information 39(4), 635-655.


Leydesdorff, Loet, 1995, The Challenge of Scientometrics: the development, measurement, and self-organization of scientific communications. Leiden: DSWO Press, Leiden University (2nd edition at < >, forthcoming).


Leydesdorff, Loet, 2001, A Sociological Theory of Communication: The Self-Organization of the Knowledge-Based Society. uPUBLISH.COM: Univesal Publishers; at <>.