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When economist lead the R&D dance

Recently, national governments in several European countries have merged their ministry for science and research, with the portfolio of economic affairs. This is true, at least for the moment, in the UK, in Spain, and in Austria. So far, these three countries stand out as an exception in the European map. Does this mean that research has been reduced down to being the object of mere economic considerations? And what does the merger in three countries within short-time tell us about research policy in Europe?

I would argue that it does not necessarily indicate a subordination of the kind that short-term economic considerations now outstrip long-term investments into research and science. For one, changes in the highest echelon of administration often leave the daily business below unhampered. Perhaps, more importantly, the mergers only reflect the old dependence of research on political and economic considerations, rather than radically and miraculously facilitating this dependence all of a sudden.

In this regard, those criticising the mergers may be out of touch. But we see that their justification is no less hypocritical. Politicians argue that combining the portfolios would allow covering the entire innovation chain under a single umbrella. However, this argument is not very convincing even though it is also portrayed as a gesture towards Europe and the Horizon 2020 funding programme, specifically geared towards supporting innovation.

Typically, R&D is a crosscutting theme, covered by several ministries. In many Member States, science and research is combined with education and sports. In many others, the R&D policy-making is split between the science and the economics ministry. These ministries then usually compete not only for budget lines, but also try to extend the scope of their respective R&D activity on behalf of the others. Note that the political difference lies in setting up a budget at EU level, where one research program—currently Horizon 2020—funnels money to various Directorate Generals, the DG Research and Innovation being only one of them, albeit clearly the largest.

For politicians at all levels, research and innovation is an attractive issue. Indeed, it means the opportunity to spend public money while doing something good and sustainable for society. A closer look at the political processes surrounding the merger in each of the three countries indicates that something more profane was going on, however.

Mostly, it was party politics that determined the decision to bring the portfolios of research and science and economic affairs under a single umbrella. In Spain, for example, it was due to the populist promise to reduce the overall number of ministries. In Austria it was due to the fact that the government put higher priority on family affairs. And, since the Austrian government did not want to expand the number of ministries, it had to remove one. The British merger followed one of the rare coalition governments in the UK, and was the object of a compromise, even though the official statement stressed the “approach to promoting UK competitiveness and productivity.”

So what are the effects of these mergers likely to be? Whether the steering of the research portfolio by ministries for economic affairs is likely to facilitate more innovation, we have to wait and see. But overall, the odds are that it may come at the costs of lower research funding, rather than an increase. This is what has happened in Spain and, albeit to a lesser degree, in the UK already. And this is what Austrian colleagues are currently fighting against.

All in all, there is one major pattern underlying the motivation for such mergers: to cut budgets. Should the phenomenon become a trend, it would be rather disquieting for researchers across Europe.

Go back to the Special Issue: Open Innovation

Thomas König

Thomas is a Governing Board member of EuroScience and was formerly scientific advisor to the previous ERC president, Helga Nowotny, and is the author of a book on the history of the ERC.
Thomas König

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2 thoughts on “When economist lead the R&D dance”

  1. Hi Michael,

    Many thanks for your comments, which I fully subscribe to. I think part of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that, as non-native English speaker, I wrote “economic affairs” where I should have written “business”. (In Spain and Austria, too, economy is handled mostly by the ministries for finance.)

    The other issue concerns the institutional history: true, Britain is different from continental Europe.

    What I tried to show, however, is that a) there is no general trend in Europe, and b) that there are other logics at work than what is often proclaimed, namely, to foster the entire innovation cycle in one department, and so on.

    Not very surprising for anyone who is engaged in science policy, but still noteworthy, I hope.

    Best,
    Thomas

  2. It is not true that in the UK “merged [the] ministry for science and research, with the portfolio of economic affairs”. The Treasury deals with economic affairs while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) handles research.

    Research in the UK has always been in the hands of a government department with significant responsibility for “economic affairs”, although not for the economy. Before BIS handled R&D, the Department of Trade and Industry, a forerunner of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, called the shots. For many years, the government’s industry department has handed out more money for R&D than other departments. The UK has not had a “ministry of science” for more than half a century, probably longer.

    It is true that the Treasury wields increasing power behind the scenes, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer making announcements about research. But there is, as yet, no formal merger of these functions.

    If anything, the latest move in the UK has been to remove R&D from the clutches of any government department. It now has a shadowy operation called the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) in charge.