Dr Josep A. Rom, Vice-Rector for Research and Innovation at the URL
Can you tell us about your career at the URL as a professor and a researcher?
I think my “history” is very representative of the evolution of research at this university over the last 30 years. I joined Blanquerna in 1994 and co-founded the Blanquerna-URL Faculty of Communication and International Relations (FCRI). A process of cultural transformation came, beginning from the traditional role of a professor with a focus on teaching, shared by all URL schools, in which faculty members learned about “research culture,” which coincided with the introduction of our first doctoral programmes. After this first phase, the core of the professors earned doctorates and researchers were the drivers of the initial research groups. I was the founder of the Strategy and Creativity in Advertising and Public Relations Research Group (GRECPRP), one of the oldest groups within the Faculty of Communication.
The next phase of evolution for professors and researchers, once they became the drivers of the research groups, was to ensure that they had regular productivity in terms of publications, projects, and contracts. We’ve seen spectacular improvement over the last ten years, enabling us to affirm that, as a University, we’re fully engaged in a culture of strategic research with qualitative leaps and policies that allow us to maintain our pace and evolution.
On a personal level, being appointed Vice-Rector of the URL is a great privilege for me. It’s a truly enriching mission of service towards the university.
How do you envision steps to progress even further?
The next phase must involve consolidation over the upcoming decade. One of the characteristics of our university is the essential role of the Vice-Rectors as cultural agents in our areas, coordinating and pushing without creating concrete policies, which each of the schools does.
We have to be there for the different schools to design and publicize their research policies, to the rest of the URL as well. Being able to share helps empower them. This will help us make the big qualitative leap and, looking ahead, be able to share many activities in an interdisciplinary manner. In practical terms, we need to have levels of communication and fluency between the research groups at the different schools, facilitating the growth of new ideas that are seeds to promote rather sophisticated and complex research projects based on the complementarity of the groups. It’s a great challenge that implies a new cultural change. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but we’re advancing to another level as far as research is concerned.
“We need to have levels of communication and fluency between the research groups at the different schools, facilitating the growth of new ideas that are seeds to promote rather sophisticated and complex research projects”
Is that the biggest challenge you face as Vice-Rector?
I face two major challenges: one is cultural and the other is in relation to the government. We’ve been through an extremely difficult year and a half. There has never been such an intense concentration of laws and decrees as during this time period, both in Catalonia and in Spain. We’re still trying to improve aspects of the new Science Laws and working diligently to make proposals that recognize the role of our institutions.
But the first challenge is cultural and more complicated. By definition, culture is a consequence of a community’s way of life. I believe that we have created a culture of research among the different communities within the URL, which started out only at IQS, and now the goal is for all of them to be able to share initiatives to promote this new culture. This change will be measured, for example, in the way we share projects and having things in common, by how we handle interdisciplinary challenges through more flexible channels in order to share initiatives. This is more complicated than making amendments to a law.
“We have created a culture of research among the different communities within the URL, now the goal is to share and promote it”
Are you optimistic about these cultural challenges?
I’m incredibly optimistic! My specialty is communication, which makes every aspect related to improving relationships through transparency and knowledge very natural to me! In this sense, I’m optimistic because everything we do to keep channels open and share ideas and experiences will help us achieve significant change.
Universities are always changing, at different levels. Viewed from a global perspective, our transformation has been enormous. In terms of research, I can definitely say that we have made an impressive global transformation of the university over the past thirty years! In addition, humans are highly ambitious in terms of seeking, discovering, and transforming. Exploring is intrinsic to human nature. This fascination with exploration leads us to seek and discover, to make connections and face challenges in which research is a transformative characteristic that greatly fuels organizations and individuals and is a highly enriching aspect of one’s work. We have all this available as a university and it will help us grow a great deal.
Is there a balance between the scientific and technical areas and the social science research conducted at the URL?
Great question! Our current educational model addresses this. We’re a fairly generalist university, even as a private one, that wears a lot of different hats due to our various schools. But it’s also true that we have a greater impact in the social sciences, which is statistically reflected in the high number of projects and publications.
On the other hand, regarding transfer activities, we have many more contracts associated with scientific programmes. Although there are transfer activities in the social sciences as well, it tends to be limited to consulting, sociological types of studies associated with governmental contracts, and so on.
In this regard I could mention another significant future challenge, which is how to find formulas to achieve business models through work linked to social transfer activities in the same way it’s done in the field of more technological research. It will take a lot of effort to get there, but it would be fantastic!
“Finding formulas to get business models from activities related to social transfer activities would be fantastic”
I could also highlight another way forward, associated with carrying out coordinated projects between different areas such as the application of technological tools in the tourism sector (ICT Cluster + Tourism) or the La Salle project with the Vidal i Barraquer Foundation to develop tools for mental health actions.
All of this would fall within the lines I mentioned earlier of bringing positions together and sharing even if the knowledge areas are varied. Within the University’s Research and Innovation Office – which could be defined as a node, a transit station, or a hub for contacts – we can’t help in terms of carrying out projects, but we can act as a transit space to connect different groups at our schools. We see another challenge for the future here.
With university professors wearing so many different “hats” in their daily work, is balance a complicated issue?
Honestly, I don’t have a magic solution for this. But there are complicated situations that we should strive to improve. Professors shouldn’t put their activities into separate boxes with the university’s three missions: teaching, research, and transfer. We should avoid defining labels in separate boxes. Connection gives us fluidity: if we find a way to make roles flow from the classroom (with students as the brainstormers) and share research and knowledge with students, we would make everything much more integrated (in the same way that research and transfer are already integrated).
A complete comprehensive model would be one in which a professor and researcher could feel the three missions flowing, seamlessly moving from one state to another without seeing them as contradictory. It would be a great identity concept that would help to address the “schizophrenia” that we see now, living without so many anxieties.
And we can’t forget our university’s sub-mission: our responsibility towards scientific discourse as researchers and through the characteristics of our institutions.
The Government of Catalonia has created the new Directorate General of Knowledge Transfer. How do you view this initiative from the perspective of innovation, technology transfer, and entrepreneurship?
This Directorate General is really new and in the process of just learning and discovering the transfer map in Catalonia. It is a great success for the government to act as a driver of social activity in the end. It’s a strong recognition for the work done by all of us involved in the field. Their biggest challenge involves specifying what sort of activities they will put in place to facilitate transfer work. They’ve started with a formula for co-financing startups, so we’ll see how that goes. They’re also very interested in other topics such as transfer culture or education and creativity to support innovation at schools.
In the same vein, how do you see the current government’s position on university research funding? What about private universities?
Funding is always associated with budgetary improvements. If there’s a budgetary improvement, as it seemed up to now, there will also be improvements in research funding. But we’ll see if the battle we’re waging makes it possible.
We must always take two things into account: in the Catalan higher education ecosystem, the URL is seen as just another actor. But in certain areas, we’re still a “guest” at the party. Although I think we’ve been able to show our true value, we’re still seen as a “nice” guest. It’s a very delicate balance that is clearly reflected in the issue of funding: we’re involved, but always at a certain distance. We’ve been gaining ground, seen by the fact that we’re working on our future participation in the ICREA Academy project, a recent success we’re quite proud of.
In short, we have asserted ourselves and we’re invited to the “party,” but we’re still seated a long way from the head of the table – and it’s a very large table! Regarding transfer activities, however, we can have a greater window of opportunity if there are more active policies for supporting them.