OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook

OECD: “…the COVID-19 crisis has triggered an unprecedented mobilisation of the science and innovation community. Public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, and the health industry have set up an array of newly funded research initiatives worth billions of dollars in record time. Science is the only exit strategy from COVID-19.

Science and innovation have played essential roles in providing a better understanding of the virus and its transmission, and in developing hundreds of candidate therapeutics and vaccines over a very short period. Digital technologies have enabled large parts of the economy and society to continue to function, mitigating the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has underscored more than in other recent crises the importance of science and innovation to being both prepared and reactive to upcoming crises….

The world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and many uncertainties remain….At the same time, many governments view the pandemic as a stark reminder of the need to transition to more sustainable, equitable and resilient societies. This is highlighted in many countries’ recovery packages, which include expenditures for R&D. Science and innovation will be essential to promote and deliver such transitions, but the pandemic has exposed limits in research and innovation systems that, if not addressed, will prevent this potential from being realised.

There is therefore a need to re-set STI policies to better equip governments with the instruments and capabilities to direct innovation efforts towards the goals of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency.

1. Policy needs to be able to guide innovation efforts to where they are most needed. This has implications for how governments support research and innovation in firms, which account for about 70% of R&D expenditures in the OECD. The business R&D support policy mix has shifted in recent decades towards a greater reliance on tax compared to direct support instruments such as contracts, grants or awards. While effective for incentivising businesses to innovate, R&D tax incentives are indirect, untargeted and tend to generate incremental innovations. Well-designed direct measures for R&D are potentially better suited to supporting longer-term, high-risk research, and targeting innovations that either generate public goods (e.g. in health) or have a high potential for knowledge spillovers. Governments need to revisit their policy portfolios to ensure an appropriate balance between direct and indirect measures.

2. The multifaceted nature of addressing complex problems like COVID-19 and sustainability transitions underscores the need for transdisciplinary research to which current science system norms and institutions are ill-adapted. Disciplinary and hierarchical structures need to be adjusted to enable and promote transdisciplinary research that engages different disciplines and sectors to address complex challenges.

3. Governments should link support for emerging technologies, such as engineering biology and robotics, to broader missions like health resilience that encapsulate responsible innovation principles. The responsible innovation approach seeks to anticipate problems in the course of innovation and steer technology to best outcomes. It also emphasises the inclusion of stakeholders early in the innovation process.

4. Reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential for improving the ability of societies to react to crises and to deal with future challenges like climate change that require science-based responses. Reforms could also help relieve the precarity of early-career researchers, many of whom are employed on short-term contracts with no clear prospect of a permanent academic position. The crisis has also highlighted the need for academia to train and embrace a new cohort of digitally skilled research support professionals and scientists.

5. Global challenges require global solutions that draw on international STI co-operation. The development of COVID-19 vaccines has benefited from nascent global R&D preparedness measures, including agile technology platforms that can be activated as new pathogens emerge. The pandemic has created momentum to establish effective and sustainable global mechanisms to support the range and scope of R&D necessary to confront a wider range of global challenges. However, governments need to build trust and define common values to ensure a level playing field for scientific co-operation and an equitable distribution of its benefits.

6. Governments need to renew their policy frameworks and capabilities to fulfil a more ambitious STI policy agenda. Increasing policy emphasis on building resilience, which calls for policy agility, highlights the need for governments to acquire dynamic capabilities to adapt and learn in the face of rapidly changing environments. Engaging stakeholders and citizens in these efforts will expose policymakers to diverse knowledge and values, which should contribute to policy resilience. Governments should also continue to invest in evidence about their STI support policies with a view to improving them….(More)”.