A blueprint for EU research and innovation reforms

Resilience—the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change—is a useful concept for understanding the dynamics of ecosystems. Indeed, all complex systems are evolutionary. They constantly co-evolve and interact in ways which are difficult—if not impossible—to predict with absolute certainty. This is also true of the European Innovation ecosystem. Unfortunately, the notion of resilience is not often used in policy making. Its use could give a significant stimulus for solving specific research and innovation-related problems without hindering competitiveness and while promoting sustainable growth.

This is the view of the High Level Group on Innovation Policy Management, an independent, tripartite working group composed of senior civil servants of European and national administrations, managers from leading innovative companies and prominent academics. It has recently published recommendations as the blueprint for reform of the innovation ecosystem at EU level and in all Member States.

Fifty year old policies up for renewal

One might wonder whether the European Union is sleepwalking into an economic decline and widening social gaps. Indeed, one could argue that there are some similarity between the current situation and the self-delusion and policy incoherence that led Europe into war a century ago, as described impressively in Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers’.

Indeed, the inter-relationships within the Union have led to some shared interests but many individual interests are still competing. And the multiple effects of policy decisions often lead to unforeseen consequences and responses. Meanwhile, it is impossible to pro-actively engage with the EU due to the opacity of the decision-making process. Above all, the trouble is that the Union operates with political concepts and regulatory trajectories set out more than fifty years ago.

A re-think of how to effectively manage the complexities which EU integration has produced is therefore long overdue. Specifically, there is a need to scrutinise the inter-dependent consequences of fundamental economic and societal change such as digitalisation and globalisation. Altogether these shifts result in an urgent need of a policy and system redesign in order to fulfil the Union’s objectives. That is: to promote the well-being of its people, and to regain people’s trust and credibility.

To achieve this goal, a significant increase in the role of science in policy making is required, the high level group believes. Such approach needs to be implemented in combination with increasing reliance on creativity and serendipity, independent outside-the-box thinking and advice. Policy makers must realise what their predecessors a hundred years ago did not: we are confronted with structural problems. This requires a departure from the traditional thinking and methods of policy-making.

Reshaping the innovation ecosystem to deal with complexity

One of the high level group’s objective is to enhance competitiveness, deal with social innovationas a means to bolster unintended side-effects and make citizens more inclined towards innovation—and to make the system of EU governance more conducive towards innovation. The High Level Group makes many recommendations aimed at a greater role of science in policy making and at improving the operational conditions for scientists in Europe.

One of the key recommendations is to set up an independent Impact Assessment Centre to prevent unintended collateral damage of innovation and to radically improve policy coherence. Impact assessments are truly useful if carried out independently and continuously at every stage of the innovation co-decision process. It could be performed by a network of top research centres selected only on the basis of excellence, and not necessarily located in the EU. Such a network would boost research in all disciplines, because the complexity of innovation systems requires a multi-disciplinary approach.

An independent European Impact Assessment institution, or mechanism, could therefore warrant a more effective and transparent policy making. It could help uncover complex, interrelated effects from legislation on the economy and society. Impact assessments are particularly important to avoid that measures in one sector—or a lack of them— create a domino effect in other sectors and affect negatively macro-economic conditions.

Scientific advice is key

Functioning innovation ecosystems require regular, open dialogue and alignment processes between the interests of various stakeholders. In the newly proposed innovation governance culture and methods, constructive criticisms warranted to ensure more effective problem solving. Therefore, experts with different multi-disciplinary and multi-experience backgrounds must be involved regularly to provide the inputs necessary for making decisions of high quality and that are socially acceptable.

Therefore, the High Level Group recommends the re-appointment of a Chief Scientific Adviser at EU level. They would have a strengthened and enlarged role, involving overseeing the elaboration and application of new methods of impact assessment and tracking and tracing of forefront scientific development.

Addressing fragmentation in innovation mechanisms

In addition, the High Level Group also envisages three key tasks for the university of the future; namely, to be a provider in education, research and entrepreneurship. Research cooperation with companies will benefit all three. But such cooperation should go beyond technical and scientific knowledge creation. Indeed, it should extend to social sciences in order to enhance the public and social value of joint research projects.

With an increase in academic-industry partnership, innovation expected to grow. However, innovation financing in Europe suffers from a severe fragmentation of funding mechanisms. In fact, the group argues, that the issue is to do with the fact that financing sources and approaches to funding are being overly bureaucratic, rather than being linked to a lack of funding as such.

Thus, another recommendation is for the EU and Member States to improve the way funding is channelled into innovative activities, while keeping an eye on market diffusion. It also pleads for available funds to be spent through a portfolio approach and to go away completely from the wasteful ‘juste retour’ approach—whereby Member States get back what they invest in. The energy and digital sectors, as well as the space or health sectors, offer scope for such a new approach. Europe may be behind some of its competitors in ICT or other sectors, but it can still leap frog, if it manages to concentration its capabilities in such sectors.

These are just a few of the recommendations. The full report aims at a more coherent set of reforms to bring about functioning innovation ecosystems. It is also geared towards increasing the role of science in policy making. Ultimately, the blueprint of the high level group aims to providing ‘outside the box’ thinking, to contribute to the European market of ideas and to support fundamental innovations in economy, governance and society, while preserving Europe’s welfare for all.

Stefan Schepers, former Secretary General of the High Level Group on Innovation Policy Management (2012-2014), director of management consultancy EPPA, visiting professor Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Boegh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *