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Societal innovation processes require universities to act as agents of change, but is this easily reconciled with the intellectual and ethical challenges of truth-seeking? Stefan Herzig explains the potential conflict and calls for more scholarship on honest innovation.

  • How comprehensively should I research a matter to be sufficiently sure about the underlying theory?
  • How much time and effort should I spend on yet another test of the validity of my assumptions?
  • At what level of certainty do I close the books, so that I can take a step forward in the value chain?
  • How can I divide my attention between potentially useful but trivial new knowledge and the intellectual challenge of purpose-free academic curiosity?

For any of us who have been involved in research which - potentially or intentionally – could lead to useful innovations of any kind, or even to transformative societal impact, these questions are very familiar. In other words, researchers know the persistent and immanent conflict of such endeavours all too well.

The priority of (absolute) truth has to be balanced against the priority of success. Yet, this is not just a challenge for individual academics and researchers, rather it concerns the entire university. Indeed, it has often been easy to set up this arc of tension between institutions, academic versus non-academic, and let their representatives be rewarded for sticking to their respective mandates, traditional roles and priorities.

Truth and the university’s mission(s)

Universities are taking on an increasingly explicit and dominant role as agents of change within important societal innovation processes. This is reflected in the specifications and additions to traditional academic values within the revised 2020 version of the Magna Charta Universitatum, and operationalised by the recent EUA Innovation Agenda 2026.

Universities should act as honest brokers and trustworthy institutions within such innovation ecosystems and be perceived as such – both from within and the outside world.  This was widely discussed during the 2023 EUA Annual Conference in Gdańsk, and previously highlighted by Sergiu-Matei Lucaci in this series.

This is where a notable challenge comes into play. Over centuries, society has granted universities - at least within some temporally or spatially restricted “ideal” parts of the world - a self-concept dominated by the primordial importance of truth. Above all other needs, knowledge, i.e. what we consider to be true, has to be scrutinised and expanded through the mission of research. Then it must be distributed and made available to society through the mission of teaching.

Furthermore, the everlasting quest of academic institutions to preserve and strengthen institutional autonomy and academic freedom has been instrumental in protecting this priority of truth from conflicting interests of all kinds and sources. This has certainly nurtured confidence within societies to consider universities as honest and trustworthy institutions.

Reconciling universities’ traditional and innovation ecosystem roles

Now, universities and their academic staff are expected to act as intentional and productive players within innovation ecosystems. They are willing to do so. However, universities should maintain trust and honesty - as perceived from outside, as well as within, the institution. Thus, we have to find ways to operationalise this permanent task of conflict resolution in a manner that is transparent, accountable to others and compatible with our understanding of our role and place in society.

There are several levels at which this could take place, each with specific pros and cons.

Redifferentiation at the level of the whole institution would mean assigning the quest for truth to research universities and letting others specialise in innovation. This seems “ahistorical”, considering the transformation of polytechnics into universities, which has taken place in many countries, the increasing importance of the third mission in traditional universities, and the emerging relevance of basic research within universities of applied science.

Setting up the different roles at a sub-institutional level, e.g. by establishing units for transfer or innovation as non-academic departments, may be part of the solution. Yet, it seems doubtful whether the required change of cultural mindset would spread and reach the most talented researchers within the universities – i.e. those we certainly need to make the difference when it comes to innovation and societal impact.

Of course, roles of “innovators” and “truth-seekers” could be distributed among scientists, with the institution in charge of moderating the conflict by appropriate and acceptable measures for both sides. To some extent, this is already – and has always been - part of deliberate self-differentiation among professors. I see a greater potential of conflict here for postdoctoral and other early-career scientists, who need to consider multiple career paths as long as institutions withhold access to permanent positions. Furthermore, there may be instances or areas of research where discovery of truth and its value may only emerge in a single person’s head.

Honest innovation

Does this mean that we are condemned to have to find a way for (transparent, accountable, self-compatible) conflict resolution within each and every academic who sets out to be successful -anywhere within the innovation chain? Perhaps. To make this possible, the ethical, methodological and practical implications of being both a critical truth-seeker and a productive innovator may deserve greater reflection, discussion and eventual formalisation as a body of scholarship in its own right. Such a scholarship of honest innovation would certainly relate to and perhaps even subsume all of Ernest L. Boyer’s traditional scholarships of discovery, teaching, integration and application.



Stefan Herzig
TH Köln - University of Applied Sciences

Stefan Herzig currently serves as President of TH Köln, University of Applied Sciences, Germany. He is Professor Emeritus of Pharmacology at the University of Cologne, Germany. His research focused on ion channels in disease, medical education, and academic career development.

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