Innovation can't afford mistakes

Friday 2nd March 2012

As the science and technology sector is urged toward innovation, it is a topic that can be double-edged and in-depth understanding of its dynamics and its impact become mandatory. As innovation policy is notoriously difficult to get right, declared both scientists and academics during the day-long symposium.

STOA Vice-Chair MEP António Correia de Campos (right), opened the conference, emphasising that the shaping of this €80bn framework for research and innovation, within the context of the current financial and economic crisis, provided a clear sense of urgency to the innovation debate.

Innovation is not an easy answer, declare the "Science of innovation" symposium voices. While it has improved human living standards to an unprecedented level, and is the key to further progress; it is also a double edged sword, without its effects always being positive.  

Science of Innovation” held at the European Parliament, was co-hosted by the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel and the European Science Foundation (ESF) to provoked debate over core assumptions in the policy.

EU discussions on the role of research and innovation to promote competitiveness, employment and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth is in line with the EU vision for an “Innovation Union.” Within these objectives, Horizon 2020 is being nsee as a key policy tool to foster growth in investment, bot public and private in research and innovation across all Member States, and to strengthen the European Research Area (ERA)

Prominent academic speakers went beyond the ‘innovation is good and we need more of it’ policy discussions to explore the fundamental nature of innovation, and its underlying dynamics of ‘creative destruction’.


The discussion focused on how to harness the power of innovation while recognising that there is a flip side that should not be ignored. Innovation is not a magic bullet that will solve all problems, and the policy-focus on innovation should not disguise underlying trade-offs and choices.

While over the long run, innovation has clearly been a tremendous force for improved living standards, in the short run, high rates of innovation can be disruptive for society - for example when it leads to jobless growth rather than job creation. Innovation can also have negative impacts on environment and people’s health, as production and consumption processes are affected in complex, often unexpected ways. 

Innovation therefore requires in-depth understanding, the panel warned, to ensure that more of it leads to real human progress, and to manage the short- and long-run trade-offs that might exist.

“Rather than ‘creative destruction’ we are increasingly seeing a process of ‘destructive creation’, in which new products and services diminish or destroy the usage value of existing ones, to the benefit of a few rather than many. It is thinkable that there is something such as ‘too much innovation’ ” said (left) Luc Soete, professor of International Economic Relations and Director-Dean of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance at Maastricht University, as well as Director of UNU-MERIT.

Policy-makers face a challenge not simply to stimulate innovation, but to stimulate the right kind ofinnovation, Barry Bozeman, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Georgia (right) told the audience, adding that this requires an clear idea of ‘public value’ and how to measure it.

Governments implement a wide range of policies to encourage innovation, sometimes with little evidence of effectiveness. “Evidence for their impact, in terms of actually stimulating innovation, is often limited, widely dispersed and exists in many different forms – from academic research to internally-commissioned programme evaluations” said Jakob Edler, (left) Professor of Innovation Policy and Strategy and executive director at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, adding this is a challenge for developing robust evidence-based innovation policy.

It is important to assess how European research and innovation policy affects the different countries andregions in Europe, as its design may work better for some countries than for others, meaning that diversification of innovation policy is vital, said (right) STOA chair MEP Paul Rübig. In particular a better understanding of innovation policy for the service sector is important, as this is the largest and fastest growing sector, making up more than two-thirds of European economies.

Alan Hughes, (left)  Professor of Enterprise Studies at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Business Research, warned that it is crucial to not simply copy policy that seemed to have worked in other sectors, in other countries or in other times.

“Innovation policy sometimes has a ritual dimension, in which policy-makers apply certain principles from elsewhere – often the US – because it seems like the thing to do, rather than because of clear evidence that it will work in their particular situation. Innovation policy has to be context-specific, and this is a big challenge for those who want to develop European-level innovation policy”.


This was echoed by (right) Mariana Mazzucato, economist and Professor in Science and Technology Policy at SPRU of the University of Sussex, who stressed: “Rather than mythologising certain actors such as venture capital or SMEs, and demonizing others such as the state - especially nowadays with the austerity obsession – policy-makers need to look at how innovation systems really work.”

Innovation policy must be evidence-based and policy-makers must be wary of wishful thinking, concluded Conference chair (left) Professor Sir Roderick Floud, European Science Foundation and Provost of Gresham College, who argues that the “science of innovation” can provide the necessary tools to understand the dynamics and full impact of innovation and innovation policy.

"It is vital that policy-makers take note, because in the current economic climate we cannot afford mistakes."

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