Innovating for public policy and social impact
Francisco Barnés has an impressive career in terms of university-industry relations; something he promoted when heading UNAM’s School of Chemistry, the Mexican Petroleum Institute, as the chancellor of the Universidad Nacional, and now from the board of governors of the US-Mexico Foundation for Science (Fumec). In this interview, he talks about the panorama of the challenges the digital revolution imposes on higher education institutions and presents two disruptive proposals: innovation consortiums to face, with high technology, complex public problems and public technological developments of high impact.
Por: César Guerrero Arellano / Photo: Ignacio Galar

In the midst of the rapid advance of technology, what are the main challenges higher education institutions face?

In all human activities, knowledge grows exponentially and the range of professional activities is increasingly wider. Hence, there is a constant need of redefining syllabuses and programs. My generation very soon realized that relearning was necessary. A bachelor’s degree, or even a graduate program, provides specific knowledge available at that moment; whereas with professions, their instruments and relevant knowledge change over time. Universities, including Mexican ones, have taken initiatives to change their study programs and their teaching methodology. With access to information via electronic means, they must guide students towards appropriate sources, giving information a pedagogical use. Soft skills, like setting out a problem and solving it while in a multi-disciplinary team, have a growing value in the training of graduates.


Inclusion or high performance: where should universities head in the digital era?

In a country like ours, both need to be met. High performance is determining in the training of high-level professionals Mexico needs to change. There is a strong correlation between high performance, professional success and leadership in society. By no means can we disregard it; it would be extremely harmful for the country and the activity of future professionals. On the other hand, it is strictly fair that a wider segment of the population has access to professional and technical degrees; it is also the best investment a society can make. Universities must make an additional effort with those that have less financial and economic resources. In UNAM’s experience, if economic scholarships are complemented with tutorials in the first year of the degree—particularly in basic subjects such as mathematics or languages—, student performance in following courses is improved and the graduation rate increases significantly. Students who at the beginning postpone a less important subject in order to take these tutorial courses, make up for it in subsequent semesters.


How can current syllabuses that befit the dynamics of the 21st century be guaranteed?

The best way of getting updated is with liaison programs. They allow to be up to date on issues that alumni will face, and to omit the least relevant ones or those that are resolved with new instruments or procedures. Linking teaching, researcher, and student groups in terms of issues with complex solutions is a very successful combination. Students are better prepared; professors have a clearer notion of issues, methodologies and technologies in professional practice; and researchers can contribute with new knowledge or improvements. Likewise, even with full-time lecturers, all universities around the world open spaces so that successful professionals spend a fraction of their time on training students and discussing with their peers the issues they face, since this would contribute to better professional training.


How do academic institutions benefit from links with industry?

University work is divided into three main parts: training human resources, generating knowledge, and spreading it in society. All work in these three activities is enriching, provided the people who carry it out get involved with real company, government or freelancer problems. Transmitting behavior models, motivation, the use of professional or knowledge tools to students to face a specific problem is more effective if there is ongoing collaboration in linkage activities. Universities can give specialized courses to professionals, participate in technological developments or generate knowledge to solve problems of public interest. On the other side, there is a flow of additional resources universities can use for infrastructure and equipment; to compensate teachers; and give scholarships or scholarship complements to students participating in these activities. But the biggest benefit for universities is the feedback they get throughout the process, which allows them to fulfill in a more relevant way the substantive functions that society has entrusted to them. If well set out and managed, it is a way for everybody to win, and it significantly increases the efficiency of a system and its impact on the development of a country.


How do you see university and company relations in Mexico? What measures could strengthen them?

We have sporadic practices and successful models that still lack the necessary scope to have more results. Incentives for national teaching and research institutions created by the State to go down that path are insufficient.

Companies are used to looking for foreign technology instead of taking the risk to develop their own, one of the fundamental areas where relations are established. The importance of articulating academia with different levels of the Mexican state or with the private and independent sectors should be valued more.

Academic relations apply from astronomy to zoology disciplines, and all the letters of the alphabet. One of the successful linkage experiences that has surprised me most is learning that the British government for some time always included a philosopher in multidisciplinary groups to analyze complex problems. Its point of view enriches the discussion and analysis, and the philosopher strengthens its experience and conveys it to the young people he is preparing. If we include university specialists and young people in training to solve complex problems—particularly those faced by public institutions—and we also offer incentives to the productive sector to liaise with them, we have a win-win situation: there will be greater economic activity and international competitiveness.


In your experience at the helm of UNAM, how can you successfully link academia with industry, especially in public universities?

The School of Chemistry is the case I better know in UNAM. It developed an increasing offer of refresher programs, with high or specific demand for companies and professional sectors. It has trained specialists of Petróleos Mexicanos and of Comisión Federal de Electricidad, of engineering firms, of the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and clinical biochemical laboratories. These have been successful courses throughout time and some end up as permanent diplomas, and others even as master’s degrees. On the other hand, 30 years ago the School centralized the most expensive analytical equipment and with the highest impact for the use of academic researchers and to offer support and counseling to the industry. Its specialized laboratory for the pharmaceutical industry has become a national benchmark in bioavailability, bioequivalence, or therapeutic effect tests, required by the health authorities to approve the introduction of new medications to the market.

Likewise, support was given to the development of lectures financed by a domestic or international company on a topic of general interest. The purpose is to train people who sooner or later will join the productive world. At the same time, members of academic committees in the industry and the Schools alike are updated and are able to identify areas of opportunity. With the support of Conacyt, the School board has promoted in recent years a university venture called “Vinculación química,” an instrument focused on the development of projects of interest for the industry. Interesting results are emerging and it can serve as a model for other university departments and various chemistry educational institutions of the country. The regulatory framework required has been passed so that the National University can charge for those services.


How can investment in research and development be increased? What actions must be taken to attract and create more technologically-based companies?

This phenomenon occurs when the different sectors of the society—government, industry, and university– realize that by working together they can reach farther. In sync, they attract and/or develop technologically-based companies that have the capacity to integrate more easily high technology inputs to their products.


Are there adequate incentives for companies to strengthen their ties with universities?

Fumec, of which I am a board member, has played an essential role for 25 years by identifying the best international experiences and adapting them to the Mexican environment; the creation of consortia with partners of the aeronautic industry is but one good example. I have worked closely with consortia of the automotive industry and in the incorporation of state-of-the-art technologies to the production and marketing of Mexican agricultural products so that they conform to the health controls required for their export. With an initial fund set up equally by both governments, it promotes linkage programs among entities of the federal government, initiatives of local governments, universities and research institutes, and businesses.


We are aware of the important role you have played in the promotion of Mexico’s energy sector. What successful experiences in technological research and development can you share with us? Can they be replicated in other economic activities?

One of them was the development and optimization of different catalysts that the Instituto Mexicano del Petróleo (IMP, for its acronym in Spanish) conducted for many years with the idea of processing Mexican crude oils in the best conditions and reduce costs, and so that the end products complied with the characteristics required for each market. Unfortunately, this program lost validity derived from the regulatory systems adopted later on. But the development of chemical specialties for the oil industry is still working very well. The IMP has a considerable number of patents registered in Mexico, and many internationally. The majority are innovations on existing formulations in the market that result in better performance. In some cases, the molecule has been developed by the IMP and, in others, in collaboration with various research centers. In the research projects financed by the hydrocarbon industry, one of the best models has been that which includes multidisciplinary groups (researchers and specialists of the IMP working in collaboration with university researchers and professionals of the oil industry).

In the electric industry, one of the most important achievements was the development that at one point, ranked Mexico as the third or fourth largest producer of geothermal power. This was possible thanks to the work of CFE, the Instituto de Investigaciones Eléctricas (Institute of Electric Research), and equipment providers. With the Biotechnology Institute and the School of Chemistry, interesting products have been developed that are launched in the market: a couple of domestic companies are becoming world leaders in viper and scorpion bite antidotes with their own developments. Their serums are exported to Africa, Europe, and the United States.


What strengths does Mexico have to face the digital challenge?

The models with which we manage the country’s companies date back to 14 or 20 years ago. We could incorporate the advances in the management of large volumes of data that emerged during this period to climate prevision models for the better management of hydraulic basins. On their own, institutions like the Instituto Mexicano de Tecnología del Agua (Mexican Water Technology Institute - IMTA, for its acronym in Spanish) do not have sufficient instruments or budget to launch projects of this magnitude and responsibility. Ideally, the best national intelligence available should be part of a consortium in the solution or contribution of technologies.

There are areas of opportunity in each activity of the public sector: design of smart electric grids or of a public bid platform with robust and updated information that ensures honesty and transparency, that physicians in marginalized areas use satellite Internet to access the best information available in the best hospitals, that the INEGI optimizes the use of information available in its databanks in collaboration with the best specialists of academic institutions and research centers in the country. It is as though we are still in pre-historic times regarding many of these collaboration models; and when we finally manage to progress, time and time again, and regardless of the political party, the next government dismantles the programs because they decide that they will reinvent the wheel or because it finds a rotten apple in the basket, thus wasting the successful experiences from which we could continue working. This is what has usually happened in Mexico time after time. Successful countries in terms of technological development took on—a long time ago—the responsibility to make public policy instruments available to companies to foster technological development and favor their ties with universities and research institutes. This is the only way forward.


Are there appropriate incentives for university researchers to develop technological solutions? What must be done to promote it?

In technological developments with high social impact, ownership of knowledge should be one more public policy instrument. In fields of clear economic interest, it is better and more efficient that ownership remains in the private field. But in problems of clear social interest, like vaccines for tropical diseases that do not yield revenues for pharmaceutical companies or the implementation of new technologies to promote the development of marginalized areas of the country, it is more effective that the State owns the patents developed in public universities or research centers, and that it authorizes their use at no cost to those who contribute to public well-being and offers licenses to those who market them abroad. Instead of subsidizing the wastefulness of traditional methods of water and energy distribution, it is best to develop technologies to manufacture more efficient and less polluting rural stoves, more efficient irrigation systems and solar panels for marginalized communities, which would increase their productivity and standard of living. Equipment acquired with public financing for these purposes could include national materials and, in this way, stimulate the economic activity and value generation.


In your opinion, what technological research and development sectors in Mexico have integrated successfully the global economy and why?

There are examples in the domestic industry where fortunately technologies have been developed that are implemented in international markets, such as the sponge iron of Grupo Monterrey, which at one point was marketed all around the world for the steel industry. However, both the public and private sectors have been historically conservative in terms of technological development. State-of-the-art technology is not acquired in the market, and the cost of not assuming the risks of developing our own and adequate technology to meet our needs is paid in royalties of the available technology, with the ensuing competitiveness loss.


As a doctorate student, you co-authored a patent in the United States. What is the importance of intellectual protection in the development of knowledge and technology?

Rules for the protection and registration of intellectual property developed in State research centers or financed by it are essential. To prove that a product has value for the market, instruments are required that make it possible to go from the prototype to the industrial demonstration.

In the more technologically developed countries, this task is usually supported by capital instruments that assume the risk. Mexico has few instruments that finance the early phase of projects; Nacional Financiera has developed a few. When one embarks on a specific project, risk is very high; but if this is done in 10 projects, even if only one or two work out, the loss seen in the remaining projects is compensated. Therefore, more financial instruments from the private initiative or promoted by the State are needed. But they have to live up to the challenges imposed by the technological development of the country.