Innovation
Irish Innovation: Basic and applied research battles in Ireland and Europe
By Finfacts Team
Sep 3, 2013 - 7:39 AM

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Irish Innovation: While basic or curiosity research is important, Irish and European science lobbies are pressurising governments to give funding priority to it even though innovation does not necessarily follow from science. Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council (ERC) says: "Scientific curiosity, given sufficient space and autonomy, remains the most powerful driving force behind the completely unforeseeable transformations in how our societies develop. In order to understand what science can do for Europe, it is important to clarify what science - - that is, curiosity-driven frontier research -- cannot do for Europe: deliver results that can immediately be commercialised." True but Europe's more important problem is that it is poor at innovation, which mainly depends on utilising existing knowledge rather than new scientific discoveries. The scientists want to have control of budgets with no mission targets even though Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), one of Europe's greatest scientists, had the goal of improving public health and historically, the US government's spending on basic research, has always had some mission goal: the Manhattan Project; the Cold War, the Space Mission and Public Health.

The late Donald Stokes, who was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, in a 1997 book on the relationship between science and technology, argued that while the basic research community likes to equate ‘basic’ with ‘blue skies’ or ‘curiosity-driven’ research, he highlights ‘Pasteur’s Quadrant’ (see chart above) - - use-inspired basic research - - which has huge economic and scientific importance and forms a large part ‘basic’ research that properly belong in this quadrant. Pasteur was driven simultaneously by both deep curiosity and a strong interest in improving human life.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, a scientific adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had put forward a model for public support of peacetime research based on a linear model with two fundamental postulates: first, "basic research is performed without thought of practical ends," and second, "basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress."

Stokes' book 'Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation,' (Google Books), argued that Bush's model did not reflect the actual practice of science and technology and he provided several examples of research that does not conform to the distinction between basic and applied. He highlighted Pasteur, whose work in microbiology was both basic and applied at the same time.

A study, commissioned by EARTO (European Association of Research and Technology Organisations) and conducted by the Technopolis Group, a European technology and science consultancy, reviews the scientific literature on the links between research and innovation and examines how governments outside of Europe spend on R&D, and the implications for the European Commission's  Horizon 2020 research and innovation plan.

The study published in December 2012, 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 actors and functions within the innovation system operate effectively. The report concludes 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.

The study says that most innovation arises from the use of existing knowledge and the most successful commercial innovators are not the pioneers. Think of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung and Facebook.

Advances in technology are not necessarily science-driven and the airplane and transistor are cited as technologies where the science followed. Historically, science does not breed technology. It's usually the reverse.

Science Foundation Ireland could meet its goal of Ireland being a big name in science by 2020 but the impact on innovation could be very limited.

In Europe, there is what is termed the "European Paradox" where good or excellent research does not result in innovation. However, the problem is that Europeans are poor at innovation in modern sectors. Most big European companies were born before 1950 and more research spending is not going to solve the problem (Nokia outspent Apple about 4:1 on research).

Ireland's commercial research base is small and areas such as biotech have a high degree of risk: most companies never make a profit and in 2012, only 12% of 286 US firms on public exchanges reported a profit. International research shows that university-industry links improve research performance but as we have seen recently, foreign multinationals in Ireland are not interested in funding Irish university research. That is a huge roadblock as without them, research that may have the potential of being commercialised, would likely have a very small local market or none.

Only about 20% of tech firms reach their tenth birthday and Ireland has traditionally had a low rate of firm formation.

Irish third level institutions are  important in the education of science and technology graduates as is research funding but claims made by insiders that research is crucial to the recovery, are not credible.

For more detail see here:

Finfacts: Irish Innovation: Evidence of science policy failure mounts

Prof Nowotny said in 2011 that by 2013, the ERC "must have convinced the EU and its governing bodies to establish the ERC as a permanent and independent institution, dedicated solely to the funding of leading researcher with the scientifically most creative ideas."

However, the Technopolis Group study opposed such a move while supporting both basic and applied research funding.

In 2012 in Ireland, a government group recommended 14 research areas for Irish public funding but Irish university researchers have been warning of severe consequences.

Technopolis Group:

Getting the Balance Right: Basic Research, Missions and Governance for Horizon 2020 [pdf]

Summary slide presentation [pdf]

Main points of study:

“Basic” (or “fundamental” or “pure” or “blue-skies”  or “frontier” …) research is only one ingredient in a well-functioning innovation system

  • 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 – i.e. 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 like ours, 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% of the total.
  • For all of the above reasons, basic research is one necessary ingredient in our innovation systems. But it is only one ingredient in a well-functioning whole that must effectively link producers and consumers of knowledge, as well as the many intermediate functions of development, design, prototyping, manufacturing, etc
  • Because basic research – both mission-oriented as well as researcher-initiated – is inherently high-risk, it must be able to rely on public funding. What, then, is the right level of public investment? In a basket of advanced countries the share of basic research in total R&D is around 20%. Horizon 2020 allocates some 21% of its proposed budget to the researcher initiated ERC and FET1 activities alone. Since some other parts of Horizon 2020 will fund mission-oriented basic research, there seems to be too much support overall for researcher-initiated basic research and not enough effort on innovation missions.

The “European paradox” is not about failing to extract value from basic research. Europe is simply not good enough at innovation

  • The “European paradox” is the idea, coined in the Commission’s 1995 Green Paper on Innovation, that Europe does excellent research but that, paradoxically, research does not make us economically successful.
  • The real paradox is perhaps that there are still so many people today who believe that more and better science will always produce more and better innovation and hence economic competitiveness.
  • This kind of thinking is a variant on the “linear model” of innovation, long since discredited in the scientific literature but surprisingly still very influential among policy makers. A current example is the idea that we must do more to extract value from publicly funded research. This assumes that immediately exploitable value is always present in what is being researched but that we are somehow unable to see or use it. The argument is encouraged by some in the academic world, for it tends to transfer responsibility from those who perform research to those who fail to exploit its value. Innovation is sometimes triggered by a scientific discovery, but more often it is driven by problem-solving. This means that innovation-oriented research must connect with users and their needs.
  • The route from research to social and economic impact is invariably non-linear and sometimes long. It is affected by many other factors than the scientific or technological content of the research, such as markets and the availability of the complementary knowledge needed to solve particular problems. Innovation-oriented research funding must be patient and sensitive to the context, interacting with people knowledgeable about needs and the state of the art in knowledge.

Horizon 2020 as an innovation programme, key watchwords must be: focus, balance, and governance

  • Europe suffers from significant weaknesses:
  • -stagnation in the level of research and innovation effort, especially in business

    - too few new companies that shake up and renew the industrial structure (or reinvented old ones to the same effect)

    -failure to modernize research and education institutions and properly to link them to the rest of society fragmentation of research effort among Member States

  • Doing more science will not repair the key weaknesses of the European research and innovation system. Rather, there is a need to expand mission-driven R&D for tackling industrial and societal needs.
  • A recent study of the long-term impact of the Framework Programme concludes that it is a successful, complex intervention addressing research and innovation networks and systems. As a pre-competitive, open innovation initiative, it transfers a lot into and out of the stock of knowledge, an activity that inherently has high positive spillovers.
  • The Framework Programme’s increasing focus on coordinating and re-optimizing the European innovation system at the European level helps break national lock-ins and increases the rate of innovation. It empowers stakeholder groups to develop and exploit their own strategic intelligence and so captures and exploits the power of self-organization rather than rely on central planning.
  • What is important is to strengthen Horizon 2020 in ways that relate to the weaknesses in European innovation, for example by investing in the three pillars described in the KETs report: technological research, product development and demonstration, and competitive manufacturing.
  • The implications for Horizon 2020 are clear.
  • - EARTO has several times called for the creation of such over-arching Innovation Councils (cf. EARTO Position on the Next Generation of European Union Research and Innovation Programmes, January 2011). The European Parliament Horizon 2020 Rapporteurs Carvalho and Madurell have both made similar proposals for “Advisory Boards”, while ERAB goes a step further still in proposing arms-length agencies to manage large parts of Horizon 2020, acting not just as funding bodies but also as “change agents”, and involving stakeholder representatives in their governance.

    - Focus resource increases on the innovation-relevant parts of the targeted industrial and societal missions

    - Continue to fund a mixture of basic and applied research within those missions, but increase the effort on development and related functions

    - Do not increase the ERC effort, which already has an appropriate share of the proposed resources, and encourage the ERC to continue to work with national research councils so as to increase overall quality levels of research in Europe

    - Increase the volume of EU Structural Fund resources devoted to innovation and strongly couple Structural Funds and European Investment Bank resources with Horizon 2020 priorities and resources

    - Ensure that Horizon 2020 policies and actions are forward-looking and driven in a long-term perspective since they concern the innovation capabilities of EU industry in the next decade and beyond


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