- Guest Commentator

Helga Nowotny
President, European Research Council, Brussels

A bet on the future

Any mention of research and development nowadays inevitably leads to “innovation”. As such, innovation is often cast as something akin a magical formula that in itself is sufficient to ensure Europe’s wealth and further economic growth. There is good reason to doubt such semantic hype. Some of my academic colleagues fear that by stressing “innovation”, politicians will focus on incremental technological advancement only. As a result, the pivotal role of basic research risks remains largely unacknowledged. Politicians, on the other hand, feel that researchers are often uninterested in confronting today’s pressing problems, preferring to remain ensconced in their labs.

Whatever our stance on innovation may be, this, however, is true: Economic growth and societal development depends on our ability to further explore and deepen knowledge about the human and natural world in which we live and which we continue to transform. We can thus broadly define innovation as the successful economic application of an idea that results from enhancing the way something is produced or from introducing new products, including novel forms of organization and finance. But in order to further innovation, we need a clear and long-term commitment to foster the science-base in Europe. I propose to call this challenge confronting us the “institutionalization of innovation”. Thus, the real question we need to resolve becomes clear: How can innovation be achieved on a sustainable basis? How can we collectively concentrate on improving the conditions and the creative environments that provide the fertile grounds for innovation? And perhaps the most difficult of all: how can the creative and the destructive side of innovation – for innovation inevitably entails “creative destruction” – be balanced in a societally equitable way?

What makes this issue so complicated is that innovation depends on many variables: The specific field of scientific knowledge and technological know-how and how they relate to very diverse markets; national and supranational institutional contexts; regulatory frameworks; intellectual property rights; and, crucially, geographic location. Innovation eco-systems tend to emerge in certain places and not in others. Excellence (and the opportunities it provides) attracts excellence. Finally, there is the elusive, yet vital Schumpeterian human element of leadership.

With the European Research Area (ERA), the European Union has created for the first time an opportunity to bring together many of these variables, while not privileging one particular dimension of the process only. At a time of severe financial constraints throughout Europe, the Horizon 2020 Framework provides a promising framework of financial support and incentives for fostering our common knowledge base and brings it to fruition. Since it operates on a supranational level, ERA opens a European competition for the best heads and brightest ideas. As such, it offers great opportunities for researchers and businesses.

Of course, the current situation in some European countries is far more difficult than in others. Southeast Europe is in a particularly tough condition. Innovation depends on many variables to “getting them right”, and societies with less-developed governance structures might appear to be hopelessly disadvantaged. The idea of “smart innovation”, attractive as it might appear at first glance, still has to be put into operation. Boot-strapping has never been easy. And it is certainly no surprise that only a handful of the prestigious grants of the European Research Council, which, to some extent, constitutes the gold standard for excellence in Research and Development in Europe nowadays, have gone to this region so far.

But not playing at the same level with the leading countries in the present does not mean that it has to remain like this forever. I see great potential for the so-called “under-performing countries” in the ERA, precisely because instruments to tackle existing constraints in relation to “institutionalization of innovation” exist at several levels. This is the idea of a “stairway to excellence”: to look ahead and to move upward, step by step. 

However, a few issues have to be set straight. European cohesion funds for infrastructures, if available, have to be used wisely, in order to build up a robust fundament for research. This often means concentration in areas where strengths already exist. It needs courage to set priorities. But by concentrating resources in one specific location, sufficient potential might be generated “to make a difference”. Researchers are attracted by scientific excellence and innovation takes place where creativity is allowed to thrive and the conditions for brining ideas to market are right. Brain drain, probably one of the most severe damages to these countries, cannot (and should not) be stopped. But expats can function as intermediaries to other, better-equipped research environment.

Contrary to many voices that cast a bleak prospect, I believe that Europe provides a framework for peaceful and prosperous development of our societies. Southeastern countries should become more integrated over the course of the next years. Using the unique research and development (R&D) opportunities now open is one way towards a stronger Europe in need of a stronger periphery.

Helga Nowotny is Professor emerita of Social Studies of Science, ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and a founding member of the European Research Council. In 2007 she was elected ERC Vice President and in March 2010 succeeded Fotis Kafatos as President of the ERC. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Columbia University, NY and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Vienna. Her current host institution is the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF). Helga Nowotny is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich and member of many other international Advisory Boards and selection committees.


Helga Nowotny, President, European Research Council, Brussels (Photo: courtesy of Ms Nowotny)

Helga Nowotny, President, European Research Council, Brussels (Photo: courtesy of Ms Nowotny)