Mariana Mazzucato: my guide to successful research missions

09 Jul 2019 | News

Citizens everywhere must be directly involved in formulating the moonshot missions in Horizon Europe, says European Commission special adviser. The way schoolchildren have pushed the climate emergency to the top of the political agenda shows the appetite for involvement is there  

Mariana Mazzucato at a press conference in Helsinki.

Citizens must be fully engaged in the formulation of the Horizon Europe research missions to stop them being imposed from the top and to ensure they have legitimacy and acceptance, says the European Commission’s special adviser on mission-led science and innovation, Mariana Mazzucato, in a new report ‘Governing Missions’, in which she sets out her formula for implementing these large scale research projects.  

The report makes 17 recommendations on how the missions should be chosen, what public sector capabilities and instruments will be needed to implement them, and ways to pull in external funding

Missions are seen as the key instrument to reframe Europe’s approach to tackling ‘grand challenges’ including climate change, soil erosion, sustainable food production and marine and freshwater pollution, amongst other problems.

While she has been central to the European Commission embracing the idea of missions, Mazzucato warns they cannot be addressed by the usual vertical approach that has been used so far in EU research and innovation programmes.

Speaking at the launch of her report in Helsinki, Mazzucato said research missions must not be about the EU picking fashionable areas to invest in. “Instead of making a list of cool sectors, we [should] choose problems that require serious investment and innovation,” she said. “If missions become just an excuse for [following] the status quo, that’s going to be a failure and we should stop today.”

For most of the funding available through Horizon 2020 and preceding EU research programmes, the fields that won awards were chosen mainly through a top-down decision making process. Such a process favours the sectors that are “the loudest [in] asking for support,” Mazzucato, professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, said.

Broader citizen engagement is needed to inspire society at large, and the creation of mission boards is the first serious example of the commission putting this principle into practice. The mission boards will include end-user representatives and have the job of directly consulting citizens on the formulation of mission proposals.

The use of novel online citizen consultation tools will allow for the collection of large, broad citizen-based input and responses, at low cost and in a flexible manner.

In addition, citizens and civil society organisations must be involved in the monitoring and assessment of the progress of missions, and ultimately their results.

This level of serious stakeholder engagement needs to be institutionalised and embedded over the long term, to ensure missions do not become “a top down pet project of a minister,” said Mazzucato.

Citizens want to be involved, as demonstrated by the way in which the youngest school children have brought the climate emergency right to the top of public priorities. “We must harness this drive for change across different parts of our population,” the report says.

Last week, EU research and innovation commissioner Carlos Moedas announced the experts who will head the boards of the five Horizon Europe research missions, in climate change, cancer, climate-neutral and smart cities, soil health and food, and water pollution. Each board will set out targets and timelines and directly consult citizens on ideas for mission proposals.

Public sector remodelling

Mission setting and governance will require a rethink of the ways in which public organisations design, implement and evaluate innovation policies. There must be the ambition to transform landscapes rather than just fixing problems in existing ones, Mazzucato says.

But public sector organisations face a number of inherent barriers. Without addressing these in a systematic matter, the potential for mission success is limited. The key to success of missions, next to legitimacy and trust in the mission-setting process, are the capabilities within public bodies to come up with bold and ambitious governance structures that enable cross-sectoral and cross-institutional coordination.

“Missions aimed at creating and shaping markets are by definition cross-sectoral and should span across multiple public organisations,” says Mazzucato. For example, any mission around clean growth will need to work across the departments of energy, transport, and health.

New finance tools

In addition to broader citizen engagement, Mazzucato’s report calls for new financing instruments that are fit to purpose. The commission should focus on transforming the instruments it has for procurement, including price schemes, grants, loans and equity.

The report recommends the establishment of venture capital funds that are aligned with the research missions. “They should pay attention to the need for patient, not impatient long-term finance,” the report says. 

All 17 recommendations are available here.

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