Science and Public Policy (forthcoming)

Can “The Public” Be Considered as a Fourth Helix

in University-Industry-Government Relations?

Report of the Fourth Triple Helix Conference


Loet Leydesdorff [a] & Henry Etzkowitz [b]



Institutional arrangements of university-industry-government relations raise political questions because the public/private divide tends to be reconstructed within these networks. The institutional questions resound with concerns about the new technologies (e.g., genetically-modified food) and globalization. The discussions at the Fourth Triple Helix Conference in Copenhagen focused on the role of the university in shaping new innovation environments like the Oresund region that recently was created by the bridge between Sweden and Denmark. The conference concluded that competing policies at different levels can provide a rich selection environment for both entrepreneurial initiatives and public participation. The formulation of public demand for technological innovations may help to stimulate the transition to an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Heuristics for using the Triple Helix model in empirical research efforts are specified.




More than two hundred participants convened recently in Copenhagen for the Fourth Triple Helix Conference on University-Industry-Government Relations. Over 150 papers were presented. Following previous meetings in Amsterdam (1996), New York (1998), and Rio de Janeiro (2000), the 2002 meeting was hosted by the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) with the support of the Research Policy Institute (RPI) of Lund University. The collaboration between the two schools exemplified the newly emerging cross-border region of Oresund, linking Copenhagen, Denmark, with Malmö/Lund, Sweden


The theme “Breaking Boundaries—Building Bridges,” reflected the conference site, with the bridge as a metaphor for boundary spanning interactions. The new bridge, linking the different national cultures and innovation systems of Sweden and Denmark, has inspired a new innovation environment. The specific impetus to create Oresund came from a European Union program to encourage the development of regions that transcend national boundaries for the dual purpose of enhancing European unity and creating foci for knowledge-based economic development (Berg et al., 2000).


The concept of a “Triple Helix overlay” of negotiations and exchange relations on top of the existing institutional divisions between academia, industry, and government agencies in national systems thus addressed the concerns of both the conference and the region. How can the regional research capacities be recombined innovatively? What can this mean for the reform of the university and for public R&D priorities? The Danish Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, Helge Sander, urged the conference audience to address these policy questions. Per Eriksson, the Director of the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems INNOVA, explained in his keynote address how the Triple Helix model is used in Sweden as a strategy for generating new public-private interfaces that encourage knowledge-based innovations.


The Triple Helix thesis states that in addition to the knowledge infrastructure of university-industry-government relations, an overlay of communications and negotiations among these institutional partners has become increasingly important for the dynamics of the overall system. The emergent networks of internationalization, ICT, and globalization feed back on the carrying institutions so that the overlay provides competitive advantages in the reconstruction of the underlying systems. Knowledge organization and knowledge-based reconstructions can be transformed into a third coordination mechanism of social change in addition to the economics of the market and government interventions. The political economy is thus reshaped into a knowledge-based economy containing this more complex dynamics because of the evolutionary advantages of the combinations (Schumpeter, 1943; Krugman, 1996; Leydesdorff & Etzkowitz, 1998).


This Triple Helix thesis can be compared with the “Mode 2” thesis. It has been argued (Gibbons et al., 1994) that knowledge-based reconstruction has proceeded to such an extent that the overlay of communications has essentially dissolved the institutional boundaries among the carrying agencies. “Mode 2” research is based on “strong contextualization” (Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2001): all dividing lines are increasingly blurred, and contextual factors therefore can intervene directly in substantive developments (Shinn, 2002). The Triple Helix perspective, however, focuses on the interactions between the emerging dynamics of cross-institutional interactions with existing infrastructures.


In the (third) approach of “national systems of innovations,” one tends to take existing arrangements as the starting points. The advantage of this approach—prevailent in evolutionary economics—is a more empirical and less programmatic orientation. In a number of studies evidence of ongoing processes of integration at the national level has been presented (e.g., Lundvall, 1992; Nelson, 1993). Skolnikoff (1993) has argued that the transformation of nationally integrated systems of innovation can still be considered “elusive.” Within the European context, however, supra-national and sub-national (e.g., regional) levels of government intervention and steering have played an increasingly important role during the last fifteen years (Leydesdorff, Cooke, & Olazaran, 2002). In the U.S.A., state governments have also increased their activities in developing regional innovation policies (Etzkowitz & Gulbrandsen, 1999; Saxenian, 1994).


In his opening address to the conference, Philippe Larédo (École des Ponts et Chaussées, Paris) listed six dilemmas of public policy-making given these knowledge-based reconstructions of international relations and political economies:


  1. Large scale policy interventions in R&D are no longer desirable. Policies have to be fine-tuned to specific (e.g., regional) innovation processes in order to develop the desirable network externalities (e.g., increased employment). Too much central coordination can even be harmful.
  2. One needs open science in academia in order to avoid deviations from the open competition in the market place. Patenting is only one way to generate open circulation of knowledge in the infrastructure. The public circulation of organized knowledge provides opportunities for innovation.
  3. The creation of new jobs in a knowledge-based economy is a decentralized process carried by SMEs and local universities. These actors need a rich environment of competing policies in order to provide startups with a variety of resources and stimuli that can be used and recombined.
  4. In spite of the political programs in this direction, the privatization of public research laboratories has remained marginal during the last decade. Research units within laboratories have become central in a knowledge-based environment. These units reorganize the public/private demarcation within their organizations.
  5. Given the investments in military R&D in some of the national systems (e.g., the U.S.A.), other nations are in need of the knowledge-based construction of public engines to drive innovation. The structural funds of the European Union (for harmonization among the member states) can be reconsidered from this perspective.
  6. The implementation of innovation programs creates tensions within the public domain because of the competing levels and the need for accountability, legitimation, and democratic control. Competition and cooperation among policy schemes stand orthogonally to hierarchical schemes like national, subnational, and supranational control systems. The axis governance/citizenship is in need of new forms of representation in a “technological democracy” (Latour & Weibel, 2002).



The Political Contexts of University-Industry-Government Relations


The political contexts of new Triple Helix arrangements and the issue whether certain bridges between private and public should be crossed, as, for example, among different genetic lines of food, generated a lot of discussion during this conference. Arie Rip (STS, Twente) evaluated the negative reactions of the European public to “Frankenfoods” from the perspective of “constructive technology assessment” and “technology conferences.” These discursive formats aim at regulating public participation in decision-making. Merle Jacob, the conference organizer, elaborated on the issue in terms of the relationship of the Triple Helix to “the public.” Should the public perhaps be considered as a fourth strand to be added to the Triple Helix model?


In our opinion, the conceptualization of the public as merely a fourth helix narrows the public into another private sphere, rather than seeing civil society as the foundation of the enterprise of innovation. The ability of individuals and groups to organize freely, to debate and take initiatives without permission from the state, can be considered as a necessary condition for the development of a triple helix dynamics of university-industry-government relations that includes both bottom-up and top-down initiatives. For example, only after the military regime lost its grip in Brazil and large scale technology programs collapsed were university science and technology researchers able to introduce the concept of the incubator at the level of states in order to encourage the systematic creation of start-ups (Etzkowitz & Brisolla, 1999).


As the knowledge-based innovation dynamics continuously upsets the markets (Nelson & Winter, 1982), the reshaping of institutional arrangements forces us to rethink the political dynamics. The networking of responsibilities can lead to a “democratic deficit” in public accountability. The term “democratic deficit” emerged in the European Union to indicate, among other things, the lack of confidence in consumer protection against genetically modified foods given the BSE crisis, etc. The networked relations among experts, economic interests, and governments at national and supra-national levels tend to become opaque to parliamentary control and public debate, since these are primarily shaped at the national level. At this level, democratic elections guarantee access of the public to the political system. Analogously, individual preferences remain an important point of access to the economy. But how can the public be expected to influence the knowledge-based developments that reconstruct society mediated by the networked processes? The social system has hitherto lagged in developing institutional control mechanisms that address these knowledge-based reconstructions. Can the university play a role in the mediation?



The Entrepreneurial University


As noted, the conference was situated symbolically on both sides of the Sund, the strait that divided the two countries up until two years ago. Lund University was originally funded in 1666 as an instrument of Swedish national control over education in this region; it now hosted part of this trans-national conference. Half of the 250 or so delegates were taken on an excursion to Lund’s science park Ideon, while the other half visited Symbion, its counterpart on the Danish side. In both parks a number of start-up firms displayed their ongoing operations on the basis of (available!) venture capital.


Can Copenhagen as a metropolis develop momentum by becoming the central city in one of Europe’s most knowledge-based transnational regions? Can Nordic “Euro-scepticism” be overcome by the expectation of knowledge-based economic development? In a plenary session about “Entrepreneurial Universities,” the contrasts among the different roles of universities were brought into focus. Mats Lundquist, Vice-Dean for Research and Innovation Systems Coordinator at the Chalmers University of Technology, described the business plan of this university. The university provides both its own alumni and others with opportunities to obtain venture capital and institutional support for new business creation.


Ole Senvinkel Nilson, Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration of the Copenhagen Business School—the host institution of the conference—represented in this discussion a European institution that is severely restricted by government regulation, but that supports individual staff and students in developing new ideas. However, the new developments have hitherto remained largely within the realm of higher education. Dennis O. Gray from North Carolina State University in the U.S.A. compared these two models with the Research Triangle Park, a land grant that has been used to generate innovative industries in the presence of the three universities involved.


How far should a university go in taking up its “third mission” of becoming an entrepreneurial university in addition to its primary tasks of higher education and academic research? The university has once more become a focal point of debate in this discussion because of its structural position in a knowledge-based economy. The entrepreneurial university, however, should not be equated with a commercial university! A crucial puzzle of institutional management remains how each university can combine and fullfil its different roles and missions: (a) its commitment to the goals of society at large, for example, in terms of priority programs, (b) its contribution to the economy in terms of providing both highly qualified personnel and in providing research with options for use in economic contexts, and (c) its commitment to the various intellectual traditions and disciplines, and the need for a continuous rethinking of the existing boundaries both within itself reflexively and with respect to these subjects of study. Since universities embed different historical traditions and compete for resources in different environments, a standard recipe is out of the question. The changes in the position of the university in a knowledge-based regime require an ongoing process of rethinking their missions at the strategic level in terms of evolving university-industry-government relations.


Innovations occur operationally at interfaces and therefore challenge existing borderlines and institutional divides. However, innovations build at the same time on previous achievements. The university has been a knowledge-based institution for centuries and therefore its structural position has become salient in the current transformations. What has to be changed and what should be stabilized? These questions themselves are increasingly knowledge-intensive. Our field of Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies itself finds here its rationale and relevance (Cutcliffe, 2000; Wouters et al., 1999). Theoretical options have to be recombined with market perspectives and with programmatic desiderata at the level of society in a complex interaction process. An institutional role for “the public” at large without this mediation through knowledge-based trade-offs can perhaps no longer be envisaged.



Centers for Responsible Innovation


David Guston (Rutgers University, USA) gave a keynote speech in which he proposed to use the momentum generated by the so-called ELSI measures in the genomics programs of the U.S. government for the institutionalization of “Centers for Responsible Innovation.” (ELSI stands for “Ethical, Legal, and Social Impact” studies. These studies are mandatory as a percentage of the budgets for genomics and other biotechnology programs in an increasing number of countries.) But he warned against an “ELSI-fication” of the social sciences. The social sciences should not study only the impacts, but also the production systems of science, technology, and knowledge-based innovations.


Why would these new Centers of Responsible Innovation be more successful than their idealistic forerunners like science shops, constructive technology assessments, consensus conferences, community-based learning initiatives, etc.? In our opinion, the Triple Helix model can provide a heuristics: The Centers could differ from ELSI in no longer accepting the public/private divide as an immutable barrier from the beginning. The economic perspective can be internalized as in programs for sustainable technology development. What is the function of public discussion about innovation policies from an economic perspective? How do creative knowledge environments provide the economy with new options for further development?


Advanced industrial societies are highly structured in terms of markets, political systems, and knowledge infrastructures. These structures cannot easily be changed by making sweeping statements about “Mode 2” or “partners dancing the tango.” But they can be changed if coproductions of technologies and innovations can be developed and stabilized at interfaces. In addition to formulating public policies, this process requires the interfaces between science and the economy to be developed further in the public sphere. One mechanism for this is, in our opinion, the generation of public demand for innovation.


A knowledge-based economy can further develop insofar as users are increasingly competent to raise questions and formulate demands that can be used as input for innovating the existing systems and institutions (Commission of the European Communities, 2001). How the social system handles the input can be expected to vary among regions, moments in time, and locations. As the public becomes decentralized, the public dimension cannot be considered as a fourth helix that opposes the operation of the knowledge infrastructure. The public remains the very substrate of civil society that provides the necessary variation for a differentiated and unfolding operation of the knowledge-based economy (Ashby, 1958; Arrow, 1974; cf. Farkas, 2002).


The role of policy making can be expected to change accordingly into the “competing policies” mentioned above by Larédo: regions, nations, and other authorities can compete and collaborate in terms of solving “production growth puzzles” (Nelson & Winter, 1975) and thereby achieve and exploit competitive advantages. The policies co-construct the knowledge-based innovation systems by introducing infrastructure, human resources, and public demand into the innovation processes, for example, in metropolitan regions.



Triple Helix, Triple Felix


Text Box:  
Figure 1: 
The Triple Felix Model by Alistair G. B. Simpson (Dalhousie University, Canada)
Several contributors raised the issue of a fourth or fifth helix and one author provocatively suggested that one could perhaps also develop a Triple Felix model (Figure 1). Why should the one construction be better than the other? In a joint paper entitled The Triple Helix Account of Innovation: A Critical Appraisal” Maureen O’Malley, Gordon McOuat, and W. Ford Doolittle[c] formulated a fierce critique of the model from the perspective of the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theorizing. Can this model explain the phenomena and help us to understand the growth and differentiation of science in society? These authors argued that the Triple Helix model is so flexible that everything can be subsumed under it:


“To summarize our evaluation, we would argue that the Triple Helix is not a model: it is one of those accounts philosophers of science would call a high level theory (Giere, 1999: 172). The theory of natural selection is an example of a similarly elevated theory. It, however, can be broken down into sub-theories and then models, all of which connect into the overarching theoretical framework (Lloyd, 1988: Chapters 1 & 2). The problem with the Triple Helix is that its general comments about interactivity and institutional reconfiguration cannot be modelled more precisely, so investigation ends with a metaphorical declaration.”


Our opponents plead for a return to focusing on the development of the sciences—as different from innovations—as the units of analysis. The development of the sciences can then be considered as a process under “natural” selection pressure (Hull, 1988 and 2001). While these authors agree that “major multi-level reorganizations of scientific production are occurring,” they wish to reject “that these changes are positive or benign.” A more “conservationist” approach to academic science counterbalancing industrial pressures is advocated.


Based on a similar concern, John Ziman (FRS, UK) argued in favour of a more naturalistic approach to observable networks of relations among institutions (Ziman, 2000b). The Triple Helix concept of an overlay of negotiations and exchanges which restructures the underlying dynamics in an evolutionary mode, leads to a model that accounts for “meaning” with intangibles that remain suspiciously speculative (Berger & Luckman, 1966; Luhmann, 1984) from the naturalistic perspective in the philosophy of science (Ziman, 2000a).


We have argued for the Triple Helix as a neo-evolutionary model encompassing sociological notions of meaning processing and interactive knowledge generation. This model, however, should not be reified; it can be considered as an epistemological tool that helps us to explain current transitions towards a knowledge-based economy. Three helices are sufficiently complex to understand the social reproduction of the dynamics of innovation (Leydesdorff & Etzkowitz, 1998; Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000); the three institutional spheres can be identified in our type of society as industry, academia, and government. What does this model mean in terms of providing heuristics in empirical research?


First, the model can be used in case study analysis. Given the new mode of knowledge production, case studies can be enriched by raising the relevance of the three dimensions of our model. This does not mean that we disclaim the legitimacy of studying, for example, academic-industry relations or government-university policies, but one can expect more interesting results by observing the interactions of the three subdynamics. These subdynamics are: (1) economic exchange relations, (2) the organized production of novelty, and (3) the normative control mechanisms at the relevant interfaces.


For example, if one compares the science park in Lund with the one in Copenhagen, the rules and regulations in the two national systems are relevant to the study, although the focus can remain on the parks’ contributions to regional and trans-national developments. Thus, the model provides a heuristics for case study research.


Second, the model can be informed by the increasing understanding of complex dynamics and simulation studies from evolutionary economics (e.g., Malerba, Nelson, Orsenigo, & Winter, 1999). To these meta-biological perspectives it adds the sociological notion of meaning being exchanged among the institutional agents. Meaning can be codified into knowledge that can feed back on the system in a next-order loop. The “knowledge base” of the economy can thus be operationalized, in principle. How does a knowledge-based economy operate differently from an industry-based one, and why? These questions can be addressed from the Triple Helix perspective because the operation of an overlay is declared. The overlay can be expected to self-organize as another control mechanism within the complex dynamics from which it emerged.


On the normative side, thirdly, the Triple Helix model provides us with the incentive to search for mismatches between the institutional dimensions in the arrangements and the three social functions carried by these arrangements. These frictions provide opportunities for innovation. We have argued that the “transitions” should now be considered as a permanent condition because the knowledge-based regime continuously upsets the dynamics of the political economy (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 1998). Conflicts of interest can be deconstructed and reconstructed, both analytically and then perhaps also in practice in an uphill search for innovative solutions to problems of productivity and knowledge growth.


Methods for breaking out of sub-optimal lock-ins can be expected to come from perspectives grounded in new theoretical insights, from start-ups or innovative developments within existing companies, and/or from competing policies. The neo-evolutionary framework assumes that both integration and differentiation are continuously under reconstruction. While Neurath’s (1933, at p. 206) dictum that “the ship is repaired on the open sea” focused exclusively on science, a knowledge-based society has internalized organized knowledge production into the economy at both the micro- and the macro-level.


This integration is doubly layered: science is integrated locally in terms of its social organization and globally in terms of its intellectual organization (Whitley, 1984). Society cannot afford to lose these structural differentiations in handling complexity. In this neo-evolutionary model, the institutional structures provide mainly a retention mechanism to preserve the innovative results that have been achieved at the interfaces. Strengthening the public sphere is from this perspective of interest to innovation policies if it leads to the formulation of new research questions and to the generation of public demand by reflecting on the institutional boundaries of established policy-making.






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[a] Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam, Kloveniersburgwal 48, 1012 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Email: ;

[b] Science Policy Institute, Social Science Division, State University of New York at Purchase, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, NY 10577-1400, USA. E-mail: 

[c] The first and third author are postdoctoral fellow and Chair holder in the Evolution Studies Group at Dalhousie University, respectively; the second is Professor and Director of the History of Science and Technology Program at King’s College University (Canada).