Policy innovation at work

The news we get about the European Union often gravitate around what’s happening, and even what’s not happening, in Brussels. You’ll have observed that once again very recently, just after the election for the new European Parliament, as the designated holders of the four European top jobs are hotly debated. [Just for completeness, let’s spell those posts out: the President of the European Commission, the President of the European Council, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the President of the European Central Bank.] While we get a lot of coverage on posts and people, little do we usually hear or see about actual policy-making at the European level.

Today I’ll present a timely example and, I hope, an inspiring glimpse of how such policy-making actually works. It goes like this: On 4 July, economics professor Mariana Mazzucato spoke in Helsinki about the mission-oriented approach to research and innovation that the Union should adopt. Questions will come readily to your mind: Why now? Why there? Why she? And of course: So what? Let’s go through.

Occasion and location – Last week Monday, on 1 July, Finland took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the next six months (in accordance with the established semi-annual rotational scheme). In fulfilling his temporary role, Finland will host several informal meetings of ministers from European Member States to discuss European Union topical issues. As the first of those meetings, the Informal Council for Research Ministers was held in Helsinki on 4 July, last Thursday.

The speakerMariana Mazzucato is an internationally acclaimed thought-leader on the role of the public sector in innovation. She’s well-known for highlighting the government’s role as an early investor and risk-taker (see ‘The Entrepreneurial State’, published in 2013), and for her criticism of the financial sector as a value extractor (see ‘The Value of Everything’, 2018).

Lesser known is her role as Special Advisor for Mission Driven Science and Innovation to the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. And it was in that capacity that she delivered a keynote speech on the mission-oriented approach to research, to the European Ministers responsible for research.

The reports – In her keynote, she eloquently argues for the European Union to adopt a mission-oriented approach to funding and directing research and innovation, much like the Apollo ‘Man on the Moon’ mission successfully demonstrated half a century ago in the U.S..

Outlining the key findings of her 2019 report on Governing Missions in the European Union, she emphasises three essential questions for implementation and governance of such an approach: engaging citizens throughout the design, implementation, and assessment of missions; transforming public sector capabilities and breaking silo-thinking; and promoting finance and funding across sectors, actors, and industries.

This bold vision builds on and further explores Mazzucato’s 2018 report on Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union, in which she first introduced the idea of the mission-oriented approach for European research and innovation.

The definition and selection of such missions should be guided by five key criteria: missions should be bold and inspirational, with wide societal relevance; they should have a clear direction that is targeted, measurable, and time-bound; they should be ambitious yet realistic; spark activity across disciplines, across sectors, across actors; and the should drive multiple, bottom-up solutions. In addition, to make these abstract ideas more tangible, the report gives three illustrative examples for such research missions.

Taking together, these two reports provide a comprehensive proposal for shaping the future European research agenda to promote innovation-led growth and sustainability. Which gets us back to the meeting in Helsinki.

Timing is everything – Following the recent election of the new European Parliament, the Union is currently in a phase of transition (hence the intricate discussion about posts and people). Once the dust has settled, serious decisions want to be taken, including the Union‘s long-term budget, i.e., the Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2021 to 2017. Preparations are of course already underway, including the provision of roughly € 100 billion for the next European research programme Horizon Europe. And that’s of utmost interest to the Ministers gathering in Helsinki last Thursday. This is the time to shape the governance principles, the implementation tools, and topical focus for that new programme.

Vision and courage – It takes vision and dedication to develop the idea of a mission-oriented approach to research and to mature it to the level of coherent and compelling policy advice. Equally so, it takes courageous leadership to go all the way and implement a large-scale programme following this advice. This is far more than devising new policy on innovation; it’s a compelling case of innovation in policy-making.

Now! – The mission-oriented approach makes research and innovation a whole-of-society endeavour, which is more than appropriate given that growth and sustainability are in everybody’s interest. At the same time, the approach challenges everybody to leave some cherished comfort zone: citizen engagement needs citizens who are willing to get involved (and researchers who are open to this interaction); breaking down silos in the public sector is going to be unpleasant for the custodians of the old order; and funding across sectors, industries, regions, and nations forces all actors to develop a new, genuinely networked idea of research collaboration.

There will be resistance, obstacles, and setbacks – no doubt. But I couldn’t think of a more comprehensive or more inclusive approach to guide research and innovation toward societal benefit. On top of that, the approach is daring – and that’s a plus. What could be better to galvanize an innovation culture that is ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century?

I definitely look forward to see the mission-orientied approach implemented in Horizon Europe.

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