10 Sep 2008   |   News

ICT review draws ‘prescriptive’ fire

The EU has launched a “no holds barred” review of its ICT research and innovation strategy. But critics warn diverting R&D spending to problem areas such as energy and health will hold back ICT’s wider potential.

Commissioner Viviane Reding: ICT is the “primal force”.

The European Commission’s efforts to boost research and innovation in information and communication technologies over the next decade run the risk of failure if it adopts a strategy based on tackling specific problems such as energy or the ageing population, warned academics and industry players.

The Commission launched a public consultation on the matter last week, with the view to drawing up a strategy for ICT research by April next year. The aim is to tailor ICT research to address specific problems faced by all countries in the EU, and to maximise the involvement of SMEs.

The consultation’s three main questions

1 What are the main challenges ahead for ICT research and innovation? As the ICT revolution continues, what are Europe's key priorities for research and innovation?

2 How, and in what fields, should Europe aim to lead? Europe has world industrial and technological leaders in key fields such as telecommunications and embedded systems. How can advances in these areas be reinforced and what new areas should a leadership profile be sought?

3 What is the role of public policy in putting Europe at the forefront of ICT innovation? How can research policy be consolidated to create a European market for ICT innovation? How can complementary policy fields such as standardisation, licensing and intellectual property regimes be adapted to support the early commercialisation of research results?

“ICT is the primal force for innovation and development in the global economy, which is why Europe must attract investments in ICT research and development and the best minds and ideas,” said ICT Commissioner Viviane Reding as she launched the consultation.

And she added, “We also face challenges in energy, health and ageing that can only be tackled if we deploy ICT solutions.”

But Rufus Pollock, an economist at Cambridge University said in an interview that the EU's efforts and money would be better spent on basic research than on tackling specific issues. Pollock is a Mead Fellow and has taken an active interest in many policy debates at the European level, especially on issues concerning technology.

“History is not kind to efforts by public bureaucracies that try to get involved in this way,” he warned, adding, “Government spending is useful, especially on basic research but it gets harder the further away you get from basic research.”

The way the US has spent money has been very effective. “By ploughing money into basic research connected to the military, government R&D helped create the internet,” Pollock said.

It is doubtful if EU efforts can ultimately help SMEs much. “To succeed they simply have to be competitive, not rely on EU policy,” Pollock said. He suggests what the EU needs to do is to, “Spend more on basic research, help produce better graduates and get away from spending R&D money on focus areas.”

Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), also doubts the value of focusing ICT research in the way the Commission favours.

Innovation is an organic concept and cannot be easily handled like prescriptive research policy” he said, adding, “The best “innovation policy” is to get out of the way of SMEs in Europe, not trying so hard to “help them”.

The ACT champions the interests of small and medium-sized companies. Zuck said the Commission's intentions are good, but that the real issues hindering Europe's ability to compete in the ICT industry are structural fragmentation of the EU market, intellectual property protection, the flexibility of labour markets, bankruptcy laws, tax policy “and everything else that is too hard to tackle”.

On a more positive note, Pollock urged EU policy makers to emphasise transparency in their strategy for ICT R&D. “Open standards and open source software should be mandated in all public ICT research. All economists agree that if governments do this they get a better bang for their R&D buck,” he said.

The consultation, which closes on 7 November, is part of the European Commission’s response to a recent report by former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho, which points out a number of key failings of ICT research and innovation in Europe.

In particular, Europe is underperforming in both the level and intensity of its research and innovation investments, the report concluded. While 33 percent of research and innovation in developed economies worldwide is in ICT, Europe spends less than 25 percent in this area.

The report also pointed out that while the EU represents 32 per cent of global demand for ICT products and services, European firms only account for 22 per cent of the business worldwide.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up