The research community likes to imply that all innovation can be traced back to a scientific breakthrough and therefore that science drives all innovation. But the evidence is not there to support this case says EARTO in a report published earlier this month. Innovations do occasionally arise from new science, but mostly they don’t, EARTO claims.
The proof for this comes from a review of the scientific literature on the links between research and innovation, carried out by the science policy research consultancy Technopolis, on behalf of EARTO. Amongst the conclusions in its report:
- Successful innovations solve problems by drawing on the existing stock of knowledge, sometimes mixing in items of new knowledge. It is the growing stock of knowledge that is critical for innovation. Basic research – that is, research into fundamental phenomena – like other research adds to the cumulated stock of potentially useful knowledge.
- When “scientific excellence” is extolled as the sole criterion for research funding decisions there is sometimes an implied argument that use-inspired “relevant” research is somehow of lower quality. There is no empirical basis for this. Researchers who co-operate with industry tend to do better than their colleagues on conventional measures of scientific quality and productivity.
- The notion that basic research is always pursued without considerations of practical use is wrong. Much basic research is done by scientists who have clear ideas of application, and governments fund much more mission-oriented basic research than “pure” basic research.
- In advanced, knowledge-based economies, a mix of research is needed to “push the technological frontier”. Less developed economies can compete economically with their more developed competitors by focusing on “catch up” research. An example is China, where spending on research has exploded over the past two decades, but where the share of basic research has stuck at only 5 per cent of the total.
According the EARTO, these findings point to the fact that basic research is one necessary ingredient in an innovation system. But it is only one ingredient.
What is the right level of investment in basic research?
Because basic research – both mission-oriented as well as researcher-initiated – is inherently high-risk, it must be able to rely on public funding. This raises the question of what is the right level of public investment?
According to the investigation by Technopolis, across a number of developed countries the share of basic research in total R&D is around 20 per cent. In comparison, Horizon 2020 proposes to allocate some 21 per cent of its proposed budget to the European Research Council and the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme alone. Other parts of Horizon 2020 will fund mission-oriented basic research, and EARTO says there seems to be too much support overall for researcher-initiated basic research and not enough effort on innovation missions.
The report stresses the need to take a systemic view of innovation, with adequate space for both curiosity-driven research and mission-oriented work, where the role of government is not just to fund research but to ensure that the links between the different people and functions within the innovation system operate effectively.
The conclusion is that Horizon 2020 should give greater weight to mission-driven, problem-solving research as well as to post-research development and innovation activities, and should also strengthen its governance so as to ensure a strong and enduring focus on innovation.