Time to rethink innovation policies to narrow the performance gap in EU, says outgoing JRC director

09 Sep 2019 | News

As he prepares to leave the European Commission, Vladimir Šucha, head of the Joint Research Centre speaks about the challenges facing the EU and how the science service can help the new leadership in Brussels

Vladimír Šucha, JRC director general. Photo: JRC

The relentless pace of technological advance will catch EU member states unprepared if they fail to rethink their innovation policies, says Vladimír Šucha, director general of the Joint Research Centre (JRC).

As he unveiled plans to leave the Brussels bubble and enter politics in his home country of Slovakia after the end of nearly six years at the helm of the commission’s science service, Šucha said low performing countries have five to ten years to improve their innovation ecosystems. If not, it will be “quite tough” for them – and also for the EU as a whole - to fend off challenges posed by global societal and technological change, Šucha told Science|Business.

On Friday Šucha confirmed rumours of his departure from the JRC. In October he will return to Slovakia, one of the EU member states with mild performance in research and innovation, where he aims to, “protect and nourish values of liberal democracy” and to “strengthen the education, research and innovation ecosystem,” according to a tweet he sent out on Friday.

Slovak media reported Šucha will give advice on education policy to Progressive Slovakia, the party that helped pro-European Zuzana Čaputová win the country's presidency earlier this year. 

Šucha believes the increasing gap in research and innovation performance between rich and poor countries is likely to amplify the impact of impending technological change, geopolitical shifts and the looming climate crisis. Addressing this is one of the greatest challenges facing the EU, Šucha said.

Weak innovators will suffer the most from economic and societal shifts triggered by technological advances. Workers in member states with a poor track record in research and innovation are more likely to be employed in jobs that will be automated in the future. Countries with weak innovation systems, “Will definitely not have the new jobs,” said Šucha. To avoid that, the EU and member states “probably need to rethink innovation policies,” he said.

Member states which are labelled by the European Commission as ‘moderate’ or ‘modest’ innovators should revamp their research and innovation policies, with the help of the EU.  Šucha is concerned that the “mild expressions” of ‘moderate’ and ‘modest’ that the commission uses to describe the performance of lagging countries understates the extent of the problem - and might be creating a bit of complacency. “For me this is something to be taken very seriously,” he said.  

Can Horizon Europe fix the problem?

For the past couple of years, countries at the bottom of EU research and innovation league have been arguing that the 2021 - 2027 research programme Horizon Europe should allocate more funds to poorer regions, to bridge the growing innovation gap between newer and older member states.

Horizon Europe and its predecessors have all insisted that excellence should be the guiding principle in choosing what to fund, and Šucha questions whether the research and innovation programme is the way to fix the problem. “I don’t think Horizon Europe is the decisive instrument influencing innovation in different regions,” said Šucha. Rather, reforms and structural changes are needed, focused at national and regional levels.

More money from Horizon Europe is unlikely to have much of an effect if countries do not modernise their innovation ecosystems, encourage universities to improve their performance, and invest in the industries of the future. Without such reforms, “You can have three times more money and things are not going to change,” Šucha said.

JRC is trying to build a detailed understanding of consequences of Europe’s innovation gap. Its researchers are working on a report on the future of work and skills, for which they are analysing the poorest regions in Europe, with the aim of mapping the best strategies for boosting innovation performance.

Managing change

The EU needs to solve its problem of unevenly spread innovation as it confronts the wave of broader global changes, which it can only ride if all stakeholders are prepared. The JRC, as the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, can play a role by advising EU’s new leaders on how to manage radical and swift changes in society.

“It is absolutely crucial” for the new leadership at the commission to acknowledge the next five years will be marked by fundamental transformations in technology, society, climate and geopolitics, Šucha said.If I want Europe to be in peace and prosperity 20-40 years from now, what we are going to do today?”

On climate, Europe should aim to provide inspiration for China and countries in Africa, showing them development need not depend on fossil fuels, and that their economies can grow if they apply energy efficient technologies.  

The EU should also pay attention to what is happening in Africa. For example, the JRC estimates Nigeria alone will have a population between 360 and 560 million people by 2060. If population growth stops at the lower estimate, Nigeria might be able to ensure most of its population has access to secondary education. “But that will not happen on its own, said Šucha. “We need to strategically place position ourselves towards Africa.”

To face these challenges, the system of scientific advice itself has been going through a big shift. Until 2016, the JRC operated in the so-called deficit model of science-policy interaction, in which it made linear predictions about the future, based on analysis of the past. Šucha argues the current pace of societal and technological transformation has made this model redundant. “We simply do not have the luxury of looking back and making projections,” he said.

In 2016, the JRC set out to change the minds and experience of its scientists by favouring interdisciplinary thinking and research, instead of trying to make linear predictions. “Before we do these projections, they are already wrong,” said Šucha.

That is why the JRC hopes the new leaders in Brussels will be future-oriented and open to drawing up flexible policies and regulations which can respond to societal changes. “The upcoming five years will be about management of change,” Šucha said. EU policy could still have a long term outlook, but must also be designed for flexibility and fast response.

And the changes at the JRC could offer some inspiration to other scientific advice organisations to take a multidisciplinary approach, interact more with society and get closer to policy makers. “If they won’t change, then we will have a problem in Europe,” Šucha said.

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