What facilitates the transfer of knowledge from basic research to practical applications?

We aim to answer this well-known and often debated question in the T-PATHS project by adopting a novel organizational perspective. While previous studies have mainly analyzed bilateral knowledge transfer between two or a few partners, our analysis focuses on longer paths of knowledge transfer in the sciences and medical research, starting at German universities, both in the overall network of cooperating German R&D organizations and from the perspective of individual university organizations.

Our central assumption is that so-called transfer paths, i.e., established cooperation between different organizations, not only support such well-established cooperation but also promote collaboration of new partners. According to our understanding, transfer paths form where long cooperation chains from basic research to application repeat themselves and significantly contribute to knowledge transfer. A long cooperation chain consists of collaborations of various types (e.g., basic research, application-oriented research, clinical research), which unfolds among organizations over several years, partly in parallel and sequentially, and exhibit previous collaboration experience as an essential contextual condition. Typically, higher cooperation costs arise for cooperation across organizational boundaries (e.g., related to data sharing). Our goal in the T-PATHS project is to investigate how transfer paths contribute to lowering these cooperation costs. Herewith, our study aims to complement research on knowledge transfer, particularly in translational medicine and research.

Our research particularly focuses on the paths of knowledge transfer in biomedical research. A unique feature of biomedical research is that it builds on findings from basic research in physics, chemistry, and biology, which is typically carried out at universities and non-university research institutes in Germany. These findings are applied in clinical research at university hospitals and tested in clinical trials before being translated into therapeutic, marketable drugs and active ingredients in companies. Our research follows the translation chains and transfer paths between the participating organizations at selected university locations based on successful but potential developments of drugs and active ingredients. 

Translational medicine and research have emerged as a new paradigm in the context of innovation and the transfer of basic research into clinical treatment in the biomedical field. Both have become a focal point of science policy and investment in numerous countries, leading to significant growth in research over the past decade. They offer the potential to advance the treatment of common diseases with high mortality burdens, such as Alzheimer's, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. Translational research mainly aims at analyzing gaps, chasms, and interrupted connections between phases of the process from bench to bedside (basic biomedical research, human application, clinical application, and practice) and changing regulatory and organizational practices.

In addition to this perspective, we focus on the organizational environment and associated processes of multiple translations of knowledge from the perspective of the university as a focal organization and assume that certain contextual conditions foster long cooperation chains and transfer paths and, thus, contribute to bridging the gaps between the phases from bench to bedside. We take universities as the starting point because they are a central location for basic research and knowledge production in Germany. They serve as anchors and hubs for multiple cooperation networks embedded in a dense network of cooperation relationships with non-university research institutions (AUF) and companies. Policy actors intend to strengthen them as key sites of German biomedical research. German universities vary in their socio-geographical locations, profiles, reputation, and status, so they exhibit diverse contextual conditions and prerequisites for university medicine and related transfer paths. Therefore, we expect a variety of cooperation chains and opportunities to initiate, expand, and establish transfer paths within university medicine at German universities.

In methodological terms, we combine quantitative network analyses of the overall network with qualitative case studies of selected university locations. The quantitative network analysis reconstructs the German cooperation network of organizations in biomedical research based on publication and patent data and explores the transfer paths of selected universities in detail. In qualitative case studies, based on interviews, field visits, and document analyses, we examine the organizational conditions that promote transfer paths and how the involved actors shape these environmental conditions. The quantitative network analysis supports the selection of cases along two guiding dimensions: A) We focus on newly emerging transfer paths, expanding transfer paths, and established transfer paths. B) We examine university locations with spatial concentrations and multi-organizational campus structures, locations with locally separate organizational networks, and university locations with a centrally integrating university organization.

From the combination of these analyses, which multi-methodically link the macro and meso levels; we aim to derive theoretically and empirically substantiated recommendations for organizations and higher education and science research policy.


Prof. Dr. Achim Oberg
  • Universität Hamburg
  • Universität Mannheim