European innovation agenda


Earlier in the month the European Commission published its vision for a new European innovation agenda (SWD(2022) 187 final dated 6 July 2022). The document brings together a lot of other analysis and opinion into one place and shows us what the Commission thinks is most important.

Selected observations:

  • The Commission view is that venture capital (VC) and innovative start-ups and scale-ups play a critical role in fostering innovation as well making pivotal contributions to the green transition (p 14).
  • An ambition for the EU is therefore to convince pension funds and insurance companies to invest in venture capital funds. Between 2023 and 2025, the Commission argues that €45b of extra funds could be achieved by this route (pp. 23-24).
  • In terms of where this investment might go, the document seems to place emphasis on what is called ‘deep tech’, namely, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous driving and delivery, space flight, aviation, computer vision, speech recognition, and artificial/virtual reality (p. 68).


When you boil it down, and acknowledging the wealth of valuable detail provided, the innovation agenda seems mainly a proposal for €45b of extra venture capital investment in apps. A lot of money, of course, but I think unlikely to solve all our problems.

In trying to steer between reductionism and empty claims of complexity or perhaps, one could say, between modest steps and grand ambitions, the Commission seems to have somewhat veered towards the former.

In my view, it is therefore an interesting thought experiment to ask how we might correct that course.

As is obvious to all of us, there is no one single category of device that will dominate the scene in future nor is there one type of investor that we need to be talking about.

Vaccines, FFP3/N95 face masks, and heat pumps suggested themselves recently as crucial devices (incidentally, the first ever European patent, in 1980, was for a heat pump). These are all high-tech, of course, but I would say are not primarily to do with apps.

When we look at the funding sources that sustained the development of the mRNA vaccine over the years, I think a picture emerges that is not adequately captured either by accounts that emphasise the role of the private sector or, vice versa, by accounts that focus on the role of government.(2)

The innovation stories for face masks and heat pumps are less talked about but I am certain cannot be connected mainly to venture capital.(3)

The Commission’s hope is that pension fund members, as an example, would help underwrite the venture capital sector.

Yet, we know that private sector investment is not completely reliable when it comes to many societal goals.

  • The transformation of European industry cannot be resolved by young firms alone. Consequently…integrating high-tech in medium tech sectors…is a specific policy challenge in industrial transformation (p. 9).
  • Venture capital in the EU is mainly concentrated in a few member states (p. 18).
  • VC investments represent only a tiny percentage (<0.5%) of EU Member States’ GDP (p. 18).
  • Under-representation of women in the European VC landscape. In 2021, 1.1 % and 5.4 % reported for women-led companies, respectively, for capital and deals concluded (pp. 26-27).
  • Private investment heavily skewed in AI/ML and life science (approximately two-thirds of the overall investments), whereas SDGs, climate, and environmental concerns attract lower interest (p. 40 of European Commission, 2022, Evaluation study on the European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot: Final report).

This point is evident in the firms the Commission has specifically praised, namely, unicorns. It wants more of them in Europe. (A unicorn, by the way, is a ‘privately owned, tech or innovative company valued at over $1 billion’.)

When we look at the Commission list of such unicorns, we find very few locate in crucial medical or environmental fields (pp. 15 and 59-62 of Testa, et al., 2022, In search of EU unicorns – What do we know about them).

Hopes that ‘private equity and venture capital can provide a significant contribution to the financing of the green transition’ (p. 18), therefore seem quite optimistic if the expectation is for voluntary action by that sector (a means to assure a contribution, taxing them, is not in the Commission game plan).

Moving, now, to another topic – innovation might be too political a term to bandy around. Indeed, the purpose of innovation seems often to maintain the status quo.

In what would appear a lapse into political naivety, the Commission Expert Group on Policy Indicators for Responsible Research and Innovation (2015) once proposed ‘social justice/equity’ and ‘sustainability’ among a set of indicators for ‘responsible’ investment. However, it then decided against including either of them in its final ‘prioritized list’ (p. 41).

The great advantage of the term innovation is it is not seen as controversial. It could be understood to signify a progressive policy, provided none of the interlocutors makes a gaffe by raising precisions. There are advantages of political ambiguity particularly in a multilateral enterprise.

So I do not see much hope of the phrase being abandoned entirely. But there is no reason to keep using it all the time if we can use slightly more precise terms when we need to invoke the idea of making something new.

The Commission, for example, produced an Eco-innovation Scoreboard and Eco-Innovation Index (briefly cited in the innovation agenda on pp. 66-67). This offers a more systemic view as compared to the conventional innovation scoreboard, with certain states, e.g., Belgium, high ranking on the conventional scoreboard, but performing relatively less well in eco-innovation.(4)

The Commission makes little direct reference to named technology in the document even though devices seem to be considered important for the overall agenda.

It could be reasonable to argue, for example, that current science and technology is adequate for the task ahead and therefore the innovation required was primarily one of distribution of existing devices, organizational change, and so on. But this argument is not made. To the contrary, according to my impression, we hear a lot about the promise of future technology. This argument, however, is made in quite vague terms such as ‘deep tech’.

I noted the devices that the Commission does (rarely) mention by name and found that they are mostly apps (let us reduce the mystique by using a simple term).

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is seen as a ‘key digital technology’ that is ‘cutting-edge and disruptive’ (p. 4).
  • ‘Internet of Things developments, AI with a purpose, using AI in R&D, innovation through high computing power, smart and flexible manufacturing’ (p. 10).
  • Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)…blockchain solutions (p. 30).
  • High performance computing (HPC), AI, and Cybersecurity, considered ‘key technologies’ (p. 31).
  • AI…batteries…mRNA (p. 43).
  • AI, block-chain, quantum computing, batteries, hydrogen, mRNA and oncology identified as ‘seven key/strategic technologies’ (p. 44). Hydrogen and mRNA are admittedly natural phenomena and oncology is a medical speciality but let us not quibble.
  • Artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous driving and delivery, space flight, aviation, computer vision, speech recognition, AR/VR, characterized as ‘deep tech’.

None of the above are of course original points from the Commission; they are commonplace. Indeed one could say there is an entire science policy sphere built upon them and, in some cases, has been for decades.

Some commentators foresee disasters arising from certain developments, others are more sanguine. Everyone, though, agrees these are big.

There are evidently groups who like to talk about apps. But, if we were to be intellectually sincere about it, there is perhaps a trap in thinking we are hearing about the things that matter, or that we are all talking about the same things.

In the sphere of civilian science and technology, the idea that analysts can detect, ex-ante, if a device will transform productive relations would, I think, be debated even among technological determinists.

We ought to note in regard to information technology that computers have been around since the mid-twentieth century and quite widely used at least in industrialized countries.

One might therefore I think reasonably have doubts that we are on the cusp of significant developments given we are invoking a relatively old technology (there is plenty of debunking out there on most of the devices named which I am not going to repeat).(5)

The well-known Chinese cases given in the table beneath illustrate important points. I chose them because of their incommensurability with what we might call the ‘app-based/venture capital’ account of innovation. The innovation stories associated with these cases exhibit great diversity. There is no simple story to be told.

Three Chinese innovations that have had a big impact

InnovationSignificanceInnovation story
Low-cost manufacturing of silicon solar panels and LEDsProduction in Chinese factories facilitated low-carbon energy systems around the world.A mix of green subsidies in Europe, favourable Chinese government policy, and the efforts of individual scientists and business people, raised hopes of decarbonization.*
The antimalarial medicine qinghaosuStudies of ancient herbal medicines by Tu Youyou, et al., uncovered an antimalarial drug with positive effects on public health.Scepticism among health officials, low profitability, and probably other factors, slowed acceptance of the medicine for many years until medical necessity (biological resistance to alternative drugs) intervened.
Hybrid rice biotechnologyNew hybrid rice varieties + plant breeding methods improved food security.†As with all agricultural biotechnology, questions later arose about who owned the technology and how it was used given the involvement of big agribusiness. Despite significant diffusion in China, the technology has not been adopted as much as was hoped in India.
*There are many twists and turns in the story. Factors in the expansion of the LED industry are discussed in Chinese language literature. LEDs find applications, for example, in displays (backlighting) and of, course, the familiar light bulb. †In India, the significance of the genetic technology (in that case, wheat), as opposed to other interventions like irrigation, has been problematized, citing Subramanian, 2015, Revisiting the Green Revolution: Irrigation and Food Production in Twentieth-Century India (p. 234). Sources: Hsu, 2006, ‘Reflections on the ‘discovery’ of the antimalarial qinghao‘ in: British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology; Hua and Feng, 2018, 30 Great Inventions of China [华觉明 冯立昇 中国三十大发明]; Meersohn and Hansen, 2011, ‘The rise of Chinese challenger firms in the global solar industry’ in: Handbook of Research on Energy Entrepreneurship; Negi, et al., 2020, Adoption and Impact of Hybrid Rice in India: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Survey, International Food Policy Research Institute

Although having clear associations with China, the innovations in the table also illustrate the multi-faceted nature of production, consumption and use of innovation with few obvious endpoints.

The ‘tech race’, ‘strategic autonomy’, technological sovereignty’, ‘winner takes all economy’, etc. rhetoric, often tied to geopolitical blocs, does not seem in my view to quite capture this observation.

That rhetoric comes from various official sources, notably, the SRIP Report, published regularly by the European Commission.

The chapter in SRIP 2022 by Balland, an economist, asserts that ‘one of the most striking features of today’s complex world is that innovation is increasingly consumed globally while increasingly produced locally’ (p. 751).

I could not understand what he meant. Therefore, I struggled to adduce evidence to support his claim. However, I cannot help wonder if the feature that Balland believes particularly marks our era has actually been the historical default.

For example, does he distinguish his contemporary phenomenon from age-old ideas about technology and international division of production? If he does not make this distinction, neither the phenomenon nor his analysis can be considered new. Indeed, we should note Balland does not invoke an unprecedented remedy, but rather, Airbus, a remedy from 1970.

Looking at the global picture, is not the crucial overall novelty that the Needham Question (why China fell back technologically) became obsolete.(6) Therefore, absorption of Chinese science and innovation is going to be the key input in the decades ahead. How could Europe prepare to benefit from this phenomenon?(7)

A possibly related issue – innovation activity of PRC-domiciled firms in Europe. Quite a lot but by no means all of known such innovation activity probably focuses on IT, logistics and transportation (moving around data, people and stuff).

We must admit the private sector, whether originating in China or Europe, keeps its secrets. Data are therefore sparse. But my assumption would be that private sector R&D in general, not just by PRC-domiciled firms, is quite narrow in focus and fragmented. This would reflect pressures of C-suite decision-making, competition, and so on.

Private sector R&D, whatever its supposed national source, therefore does not necessarily offer a systemic view of innovations required to address societal needs. That particular point tends to be obscured by mystique around the prescience of firms on matters of innovation.

To conclude this section, let us consider the most valuable parts of the innovation agenda published by the Commission. These are, regrettably, confined to a few lines (pp. 31-32). It is here the Commission summarizes some of its plans to re-equip European industry (identification and appraisal of new techniques and their implementation across production sectors).

  • The creation of a network of 100 living labs experimenting and testing solutions for soil health in rural and urban areas (the former sounds a lot like agricultural research and extension services). The living labs are intended to foster collaborative innovation, validation, rapid prototyping and scale-up of innovations.
  • The EU Innovation Centre for Industrial Transformation and Emissions (INCITE) that will act as an independent centre for identification and evaluation of emerging techniques with high potential for decarbonisation, pollution reduction and/or for increasing circularity (applies to power plants, refineries, waste treatment and incineration, production of metals, cement, glass, chemicals, pulp and paper, food, and drink, rearing of pigs and poultry). INCITE will provide a technical basis for these sectors to develop site-specific industrial transformation plans.
  • European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs) offering knowledge and tech transfer services in high-performance computing, AI, and cybersecurity (primarily aimed at SMEs).

It is at this point that our discussion probably ought to start. Promising as the proposals seem, not many details are given (my goal here was to appraise the intellectual framework of the innovation agenda not undertake separate analysis of these or other similar plans).

I do not think the proposals are presented as a central feature of the European innovation agenda. Perhaps the Commission hides its light under a bushel. But a framework for how these varied activities could operate (and interrelate with one another) would be an intellectual advance.

Some other detailed questions which could merit thought

How could we back research-intensive firms operating in profitable but also socially useful areas such as healthcare?Less prominent but nevertheless research-intensive firms, e.g., Gedeon Richter (Hungary) might tell us a lot if we spoke to them. Certainly they present an opportunity to widen the discourse beyond start-ups and multinationals.
How could we mobilize support for RD&D that stops pollution (and that private investors will not finance)?Stopping pollution is not a venture capital proposition but benefits the whole community, e.g. reduces childhood exposure to xenobiotics. Science, research and extension services are underfunded in solution-focused areas such as organic agriculture (as an example).
How could we better support, connect, and valorize EU innovation schemes relevant to urban spaces?I guess the proposed New European Bauhaus (NEB) Lab in Seville might act as a potential focal point for schemes around the ‘urban’ theme, e.g., UIA/EUI, EU-GUGLE, etc. (it seems too early, though, to know what exactly officials envisage). Topic discussed in previous report.


Commentators did not recently discover actual or imagined deficiencies in science, technology and innovation in Europe such as those highlighted in the present innovation agenda. The défi américain was apparently a cliche of European science policy in the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s, it was the défi japonais. It is difficult for me to judge how widespread these ideas were at that time.

Perhaps the perceived technological competitors now also include China and South Korea, but we still see reference to Europe as lagging.

The discourse has apparently been politically useful inside Europe to secure funds or expand the scope of EU policymaking.(8) But, in reality, Europe benefits from one of the most well-resourced public science and research systems in the world. Commission data suggests ‘innovation performance’ improved overall since 2014 (citing p. 7 of the innovation agenda).

Therefore, we might say that picturing European science like ancient Roman soldiers making tortoise against arrows is unrealistic. Such a picture would not be understood outside Europe.

European policies have gone under various labels. These include science and research, R&D (RD&D, R&D&I), technology, organizational, social and technical innovation, innovation, industrial policy, social change, and education and skills.

Based I think mainly on textual exegesis of policy documents, academic experts on European innovation policy (such as Borrás) posit a history in which policy formulation evolved from one primarily concerned with science and research, to one focused on a broader idea of innovation.

The Commission agrees with this historical perspective, commenting that 2010 was the first time it had presented a ‘comprehensive innovation strategy’ and that ‘the toolkit of EU innovation policy has expanded over the years’ (citing pp. 2-3 of the innovation agenda).

As has often been remarked, we ought to be circumspect about reading such an idea too literally. This is because it can, unfortunately, mislead us into the familiar science policy amnesia trap, whereby we believe understanding has improved through time, that we know better than our ancestors, or have invented a new approach.

To the contrary, we benefit from taking a non-judgemental attitude to past policy prescriptions keeping in mind also that many labels are terms of political art rather than necessarily stable categories through time.

History then reveals to us a big library of policy ideas. The past practices of the Commission are a great intellectual resource as officials faced problems within an unique multilateral enterprise (besides which, there are only so many options available to policymakers).

Typology of historical actions by European bodies in science, technology and innovation*

Bureaucratic reorganizationReconfiguring European bureaucracy to deliver particular tasks such as by creating new agencies, contracting, procurement, cutting/expanding headcount, merging/splitting functions, etc.EURATOM, EU Agencies, JRC
Shepherding member statesCommunications that shepherd member governments to act in particular ways; mechanisms would include committees, publications, consultations, meetings, PR campaigns, etc.Growth, competitiveness, employment (1993); Society, The endless frontier (1995); Europe 2020 (2010)
Absorption of scientific know-how from outside the EURelatively neglected but possibly includes facilitation of inward investment; brain circulation; knowledge transfer; partnering (fades into scientific and technical cooperation agreements in non-competitive areas).third country association with framework programs; international development and neighborhood policies (science and technology aspects); CEBC; INTAS, PHARE; intelligence economique (IE)†
GrantsFunds delivered to organizations for specified projects with no need to payback and no equity sought. Project management typically by either recipient organization or an operating agent. Often subject to limited oversight beyond anti-fraud measures.Cohesion policy (science and technology aspects); framework program; SPRINT, ESPRIT, BAP, BRITE/EURAM, CRAFT, STAR/TEDIS, RACE, DELTA/DRIVE/AIM
EU legislationLaws that encourage or enforce desired innovation behaviours. Regulation of technology.patent law; precautionary principle, innovation principle
Credit or loan (EIB)Expectation of payback of funds with interest. Might entail equity but not always as I guess could be seen as back-door nationalization. Different proposition to equivalents from commercial banks due to higher risk, emphasis on societal goals, etc. Probably variable levels of centralized project management.Airbus, Ariane, Astra, CERN, Eutelsat, TGV Atlantique; Innovation 2000 (i2i), Innovation 2010, Risk Sharing Finance Facility (RSFF)
*Often they would overlap and it is not intended to be comprehensive. It is simply a way to organize the limited reading I have done over the years. †Particularly associated with the former science commissioner, Édith Cresson, who (as French prime minister) commissioned the rapport Martre. Sources: Borrás, 2003, The Innovation Policy of the European Union. From Government to Governance; Bussière, et al., 2009, The Bank of the European Union. The EIB, 1958-2008 (pp. 149, 212, 239, 241-244, 341); EIB, 2018, A History of Europe in 6 Projects; Calliess, 2021, ‘Das Innovationsprinzip – Ein neues europäisches Rechtsprinzip?’ in: Zeitschrift für Europarechtliche Studien; Granieri and Renda, 2012, Innovation Law and Policy in the European Union. Towards Horizon 2020; Guzzetti, 1995, A Brief History of European Union Research Policy; Mitzner, 2021, European Union Research Policy: Contested Origins

To understand the Brussels policy ecosystem, we would need an account not just of policies specifically associated with science and innovation but also notably, related policies in such fields as agriculture, cohesion, international development and neighborhood. This is far beyond anything I am proposing to discuss here. Many accounts tend to focus on the framework program, more specifically, research investment, which is very far from the totality of the topic.

We have also not considered the other explicit and implicit goals of European science and innovation policy besides economic benefit. The most prominent is obviously European integration. Other goals, besides the directly economic ones, include public health or protection of the environment (sometimes defined by support for regulation).(9)

Typically unstated goals would probably include science and innovation as a source of pride, personal interests or career trajectories of officials or, more cynically, as inexpensive pledges for politicians who want to look like they are doing something (a symbolic goal).

I guess the EIB has been a financially dominant force in innovation policy citing the table above. The formulation of policy in the Commission and EU Agencies (as the latter emerged through time) might have been of lesser financial importance but it is difficult to say.

If we added up the framework budgets since inception in 1983, we would probably arrive at a figure approaching €300b or, on average, about €6b p.a.(10) Not a lot, to be honest, given the scale of ambitions (not the actual, escalating, spending profile + I made no adjustment for inflation and assumed ECU = €).

In theory, I guess, the science commissioner could provide some intellectual leadership on the complicated goals, budgets and institutions impinging on science and innovation, at least within the Commission. But that is not certain in practice and must have varied considerably depending, for example, on the personalities involved.

This brings me, finally, to consider another route into the historical material, which is through the intellectual agenda of senior European officials.

European science and technology commissioners of the left (examples)

Commissioner (term in office)Political frameAn idea*
Altiero Spinelli (1973-1977)†Communism‡Europe needs new science and research agencies to improve ‘quality of life’ such as by solving pollution and the energy crisis.
Édith Cresson (1995-1999)Liberal socialism††Europe is nothing without industry but the nature of industry is changing. Innovate, or suffer the consequences.
Philippe Bousquin (1999-2004)Third way¶Europe needs a coordinated research policy, not 15 national research policies (plus another policy from the Commission).
*My personal impression of a striking idea developed in writings and speeches. Apologies to the individuals concerned. †His portfolio was industry and technology. Dahrendorf, a liberal, held the science and education portfolio. The two men disagreed with one another. ‡Recalling he personally suffered under fascist rule, he sat with the PCI but equally he said he was not a communist. I leave it to experts to work out what that could mean. ††Libéralisme de gauche. ¶Etat social actif (ESS). Sources: Bousquin, Historical Archives of the EU, interview, 23 March 2016, INT973; Bousquin et Philippe, 2005, Le déclin de l’Empire scientifique européen. Comment enrayer la chute?; Bruno, 2013, ‘Éditorial: Ne cherchez plus, innovez!’ in: Revue Française de Socio-Économie; Commission of the European Communities, 1972, Objectives and instruments of a common policy for scientific research and technological development, COM(72) 700; Cresson, 1998, Innover ou subir; Cresson, 1999, Europe needs research, research needs Europe: main speeches on community research 1995-1999; Cresson, Historical Archives of the EU, interview, 6 May 2006, INT989; European Commission, 1998, Society, The endless frontier; Krige and Guzzetti, 1997, History of European Scientific and Technological Cooperation; Layton, 1969, European Advanced Technology: a Program for Integration; Morazzani, 2019, Women Leaders in European Foreign Policy: Édith Cresson; Pomian, 1992, ‘La dernière éclipse du volontarisme industriel: la fusion Thomson-CEA Industrie’ in: Quaderni; Russo, 2016, ‘La politica industriale del commissario Altiero Spinelli come presentata alla Conferenza di Venezia nell’Aprile 1972’ in: Economia and lavoro. Ina Lee Selden, 1977, ‘Confessions of a Eurocommunist’ in: European Community (pp. 7-10); Spinelli, Déclaration de M. Spinelli au Conseil le 25 septembre 1972; Spinelli, speech to visiting British businessmen, 11 July 1972; Spinelli, 1971, Scientists in Search of Their Conscience: Proceedings of a Symposium on The Impact of Science on Society organised by The European Committee of the Weizmann Institute of Science Brussels (28-29 June 1971); Spinelli, speech, Bonn, 31 October 1972 (AS-202 Discours prononcés par Altiero Spinelli en tant que commissaire CEE, vol. 1).

We still await a full appraisal of their records. Spinelli’s plan for supranational scientific institutions (‘capable intellectual instrument’), was rejected by France, West Germany and the UK. A minimal scheme designed by Spinelli’s liberal rival, Dahrendorf, won the day, thereby preserving science policy as national prerogative.

Spinelli is, of course, famous as promoter of European integration, as commemorated for example in an enormous building in Brussels. But his ideas on science and technology remain less well known. He was seeking policy responses to the crises of the 1970s, within a progressive framework that must have been touched by the intellectual penumbra of the PCI, making his writing particularly intriguing.

Cresson instigated the Marie Curie program as well as third country association to the framework programme. Israel was the first third country to join the latter and it was successful (regrettably I could only find analysis from 15 years ago).

Cresson’s thinking also presents in my view a deep intellectual resource, citing, for example, her focus on rational action (such as through advocacy for intelligence economique); the research-industry task forces; and the report she commissioned, Society, the endless frontier (Vannevar Bush meme).

The latter document expounded a detailed phase theory of historical change in science policy (pp. 2-22). The intellectual sincerity is welcome.

Both as French prime minister and later as a senior European official Cresson evidently sought to understand how science and innovation was changing. She sought creative policy responses to those changes. But, regrettably, objective evaluation of her ideas is still clouded by mind-boggling misogyny.

Looking at Bousquin, my understanding is that he believed he won the argument on a coordinated research policy, but the member states never implemented the idea fully.

To conclude, the claim that the EU has ‘a terrible track record on industrial policy’ (Politico) is unsubstantiated. Indeed, it has a good record.

It is to my knowledge, one of only a handful of organizations on the planet that have sought to formulate science and innovation policy across an entire continent.

All kinds of ideas have emerged over the years from both sides of the political fence. Some have been mistaken. Others fruitful. Others, still, were good ideas but never got off the ground in the way we might have hoped. I am not sure there is any clear historical lesson to be had other than the obvious need to be humble in the face of the tasks ahead.


Designing and executing an innovation policy at a continental scale is a difficult problem. The EU institutions play an important role in terms of intellectual leadership even if not every approach works in practice. Far from being a history of failure, the past represents a rich source of policy ideas.

A greater awareness of happenings outside the continent would be good. Information is now available via the internet. This means curiosity is easily satisfied but, above all, intellectual humility is needed if one is to gain the most.

We should also note the lack of media outlets in the Brussels bubble possessing credible knowledge; perhaps not enough interest in the minutiae of science policy from the EP; and little specialized, independent, think tank capacity. There are lobbyists from industry, academic groups and R&D organizations but that is a different thing; their goals are more circumscribed.

This also directs us to the challenge of plotting a course through the (necessarily multilingual) volumes of rhetoric that surround science and innovation in Europe. The material is too vast. An honest and knowledgable guide would be a good start. Second, perhaps, a grasp on what a good science and innovation policy ought to look like.

The recent European Chips Act is justified by a page of assertions about the significance of a single device (citing p. 6 of SWD(2022) 147 final). Or perhaps it is the plans justifying the assertions. Whether or not approaches focused on a single device are likely to prove sub-optimal is well beyond my knowledge.

My impression remains of a symbolic rather than instrumental European science and innovation discourse. By which I mean, the difference between an actor playing an engineer building a bridge and an engineer actually building a bridge. Within that frame, it proves very difficult for me to distinguish what is real from what is performance, even if such a distinction were possible in principle.

(1) All analysis in this part of the website comprises: a précis of the report under consideration; my own commentary, having reflected on the report and the wider context of the policy problem; brief notes on what is known about the historical background of the problem and what solutions have been sought in the past (nihil sub sole novum); and a conclusion. Please be advised that the discussion is my personal views at a given point in time and typically based on very limited thought, analysis and research, and should therefore not be relied upon too much.

(2) I did not look systematically but I am aware of the report, Kirchhoff, et al., 2020, Der Corona-Innovationswettlauf in der Wissenschaft (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft), which discussed the private sector due obviously to the political position of the think tank concerned. Perhaps emphasising the state (USA), I read Gross and Sampat, 2020, Crisis Innovation Policy from World War II to COVID-19 (National Bureau of Economic Research).

(3) Johansson, 2017, A Silent Revolution: the Swedish Transition towards Heat Pumps, 1970-2015 (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) is informative. The history of infection-blocking face masks can be traced back to ancient times (Pullangott, et al., 2021, ‘A comprehensive review on antimicrobial face masks: an emerging weapon in fighting pandemics’ in: RSC Advances, pp. 6549-6550). But the N95 mask owes its inception to one of those circuitous innovation stories of modern materials science. McCulloch, 1999, ‘The history of the development of melt blowing technology’, in: International Nonwovens Journal, offers a glimpse of developments in one aspect of the technology.

(4) For example, Belgium is deemed an ‘average Eco-I performer’, ranking 15/27 (2021), in the Eco-innovation Index. Whereas, the country is deemed an ‘innovation leader’, ranking 4/27 (2021) in the European Innovation Scoreboard (p. 8 of SWD(2022) 187 final). The equivalent observations for Ireland are ‘average Eco-I performer’, ranking 14/27 (2021); and ‘strong innovator’, ranking 11/27 (2021). Sbardella, et al., 2022, The regional green potential of the European innovation system (JRC124696), is also informative.

(5) There is a literature concerned with debunking AI, or at least challenging the prevailing narratives, e.g., the well-known book by Larson. The work of the legal scholars Johns, and Yeung, is informative although not concerned with debunking but analysis of intriguing developments: Johns, 2019, From Planning to Prototypes: New Ways of Seeing Like a State; Yeung, 2019, Regulation by Blockchain: The Emerging Battle for Supremacy between the Code of Law and Code as Law.

(6) I would assume the Commission knows this. But it does not seem yet to have built the capacity to take Chinese science and expertise seriously. A Commission statement, COM(2021) 252, dated 18 May 2021, concerning international research and innovation cooperation, devoted just a short (and not particularly promising) section to China (p. 15). However, various actions were proposed in regard to information gathering on Chinese science and technology, such as EU-KNOC, citing, e.g., ERAC 1204/21, dated 5 Nov 2021, implying the Commission is developing more sophisticated strategic capability. Discussion of science policy topics by analysts at institutions such as the National Academy of Innovation Strategy (NAIS) in Beijing, as an example, suggest China and Europe are grappling with similar policy issues where mutual interests coincide. In 2019, the Commission published a report on Chinese innovation, Preziosi, et al., 2019, China – Challenges and Prospects from an Industrial and Innovation Powerhouse; I invite vintage science policy geeks to compare it to the sentiments evoked in a Commission analysis, dated 1992, The needs and possibilities for cooperation between selected advanced developing countries and the Community in the field of science and technology. SAST project no. 1, country report on the People’s Republic of China.

(7) An historical approach could offer another angle, i.e., an account of the processes of assimilating science and technology in Europe in the past, including from outside the continent.

Unless we look at the stone age, I would guess Europe has never been strategically autonomous in science and innovation (not even remotely so). The processes of assimilating ideas and devices from outside Europe proved crucial although they occurred in different ways in different places, reflecting the particularities of each country’s history. I am not an expert and have certainly not read systematically, but feel there is a need to reconceptualize how we read such stories without jumping to value judgements about strengths and weaknesses.

  • The countries of western Europe once operated vast empires from which IP, materials and riches were looted; where did they get uranium for the most strategic of technologies, nuclear bombs? (Initially it was the Belgium Congo.)
  • America, Japan, South Korea (and now China) have been crucial sources of innovations in the modern era (as a moment of thought reveals).
  • Autarky is economically bonkers and outside short, disastrous, periods (WW2; aftermath of Spanish Civil War) it has never been a feature of European science and technology.
  • Perhaps Comecon countries worked the hardest at technological autonomy. They did this by admirable reverse engineering of West German or American appliances with which they could barter ‘hard’ commodities from the USSR. But I believe this unique economic solution proved an historical curiosity (search for IZOT or TESLA if you want to go down the rabbit hole).
  • Assimilation of overseas science and technology is sometimes portrayed as ‘weakness’ even by authors who acknowledge it as an important factor, citing, e.g., De la Torre, et al., 2020, ‘Nuclear engineering and technology transfer: the Spanish strategies to deal with US, French and German nuclear manufacturers, 1955–1985’ in: Business History.
  • I would disagree with evocation of weakness. In the case of atomic energy cited, we should note that very few countries developed a ‘commercial’ reactor technology (USA, Japan, South Korea, France). Within the limitations of what was deliverable in Spain, in light of the budget, political aspects, and so on (at least as far as the nuclear industry was concerned), imitation of foreign techniques gave way to tremendous indigenous capacity in terms of servicing, safety, and maintenance of plants.

(8) Biegelbauer and Weber, 2018, ‘EU research, technological development and innovation policy, in: Handbook of European Policies (pp. 254-257) posits such a scenario in which certain policies serve as a political tactic (sometimes accidentally). Regrettably, without archival information, it is difficult to draw solid conclusions on internal deliberations.

(9) Again, for the vintage science policy geeks, it would be interesting to read an intellectual history of the 1970s Commission in such fields as science, research and environmental regulation as ideas were developed that might have later become significant (I have never seen such a history but perhaps it exists somewhere). The oral histories provided by Margaret Brusasco-Mackenzie and Stanley Johnson offer some limited insights from both sides of the political fence, noting, Brusasco-Mackenzie affiliated with the Labour Party (citing her comment on p. 12 of INT969). The interview with Paola Testori Coggi, an ecotoxicologist and Commission official, is also informative (referring to the 1980s).

(10) My own calculation based on data from Reillon, 2017, EU framework programmes for research and innovation: Evolution and key data from FP1 to Horizon 2020 in view of FP9, European Parliamentary Research Service, PE 608.697.

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