Europe in My Region

Research is vital to development. Innovation also depends on being able to put all the human capital available to the test. According to statistics, this situation is still far from the reality.

This is a repost of Per innovare (e crescere) servono le donne, originally published in InGenere by Sabina Passamonti (@spassamonti, Facebook, LinkedIn), and submitted to the Europe in My Region 2016 blogging competition.

Research & Innovation (R&I) are one of the four key priorities of the 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy. Its overall goal is economic growth & employment, with 325 billion EUR invested over this period. Other priorities are: digital agenda, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and low carbon economy.

Many studies describe innovation as the main driving force for economic development, determining employment levels in developed countries or regions. This is why great importance is attached to R&I. The main characters in this sector are researchers working at universities, research centres and SME research departments. They develop changes and improvements to production processes and products. Hence, when working, they adopt an experimental approach that is given to risking, exactly like academic researchers.

Universities will benefit from R&I investments since they host enormous treasures of knowledge, together with many young adults in education, from which ability is expected to strongly and preparedly address societal issues. Moreover, the universities look at external relations going far beyond the region or State where they are located.

Another factor crucial to the Cohesion Policy is social innovation, defined as “developing and applying new ideas (products, services and models) to meet society needs and build new social relationships or partnerships.” Social innovation is essential to transforming research into innovation, innovation into economic development and economic development into jobs.

The European Commission and the OECD think that it is essential that social innovation goes into the universities. That is why they created HEInnovate a self-assessment online tool to measure the innovation degree of academic institutions. In reality, it is about creating an environment of mutual confidence through new relationships and partnerships ensuring the participation of all academic world stakeholders, curiosity and creativity as a cult that is necessary to venture on risks, inventions and entrepreneurship. The last term means the ability to grasp new development opportunities.

Are the European Universities a place for social innovation? To answer this question, you have to take a crucial factor to social and technological innovation into account, i.e. the ability to put all the human capital available to the test with a view to forming professional relationships marked by cooperation and synergy. Does this happen in universities?

The SHE figures 2012 European Commission report shows that the whole European academic system is characterised by gender inequality that becomes increasingly evident as careers advance. Only 20% of full professors (the ultimate career grade) are women on average. This automatically restricts access to decision-making roles: women only make up 10% of rectors in Europe. Italy is in line with these figures, as you can easily conclude from the data from our Ministry for Education, University and Research. A study from the European Commission entitled “Structural change in research institutions” identifies scarcely transparent decisions, prejudices and poor knowledge about facts as key discrimination factors.

This relationship environment gives rise to very serious doubts about the Universities’ ability to create such social and technological innovation on which the chance of boosting economy and creating more jobs, as required under the 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy, depends.

Innovation and Gender”: this is the title of a book edited in 2011 by the Swedish and Norwegian Innovation Agencies. The book deals with six different topics, documented through specific studies that support the thesis that innovation is stimulated only if gender diversity and equality are ensured. The study entitled “Gender diversity within R&D teams: Its impact on radicalness of innovation”, conducted in Spain and dated 2014, shows that mixed working teams encourage radical innovation even in the technology sector: some time ago, this was a male prerogative.

As a result, the ‘top priority among priorities’ is removing any form of inequality or discrimination in working environments, especially in academic environments (due to their role in R&I). Indeed, underutilized human capital is the main constraint on smart, sustainable and solidarity-marked economy and society development, as envisaged in the Europe 2020 Strategy.

In general, Funds from the Cohesion Policy shouldn’t maintain structural distortion, but rather foster changes in managing human resources within major research institutions. To this end, it is essential to draw up clear implementing, monitoring and assessing measures for the gender equality principles stated in the Accordo di partenariato Italia 2014-2020 (Italy Partnership Agreement 2014-2020) approved by the European Commission. A comprehensive list of recommendations is to be found in the aforementioned “Structural change in research institutions” paper.

The principles are also clearly stated in the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, the application of which would solve many of the critical issues highlighted in the latest documents above.

In light of Italy being perpetually unable to fully use the structural Funds – termed a “disaster” seriously jeopardising citizens – it can be suggested that these precious funds be used for a drastic measure to redress gender inequality in university teaching roles, with an extraordinary recruitment plan, linked to implementing the R&I priority of the 2014-2020 Cohesion Policy, in order to quickly renew not only the university teaching staff, but also the way of linking research, industry and society. This was my message at the “Scienza, genere e società: a che punto siamo (Science, gender and society – What is the state of play)?” national meeting, organised by the Donne e Scienza (Women & Science) association in Trento from 12 to 14 November 2014.

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