News, Announcements & Press Releases

28. February 2012 16:11

Innovation is no easy answer, says the "science of innovation"

Innovation has improved human living standards to an unprecedented level, and is the key to further progress; but it can be a double-edged sword, as its effects are not necessarily always positive.

Moreover, innovation policy is notoriously difficult to get right, scientists and academics told EU policy-makers today during a day-long symposium on the “Science of Innovation”. As innovation has become a centre-piece of European policy, in-depth understanding of its dynamics and impact has become mandatory. The symposium, held at the European Parliament and co-hosted by the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) panel and the European Science Foundation (ESF), sought to provoke debate over core assumptions in innovation policy.

The conference took place amidst EU discussions on the role of research and innovation to promote competitiveness, employment and smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in line with the EU vision for an “Innovation Union”. Within these objectives, Horizon 2020 is being hailed as a key policy tool to foster growth in public and private investment in research and innovation across all Member States, and to strengthen the European Research Area (ERA). STOA vice-chair MEP António Correia de Campos, opening the conference, emphasised that the shaping of this 80 billion euro framework for research and innovation, within the context of the current financial and economic crisis, provided a clear sense of urgency to this timely debate.

A range of prominent academic speakers went beyond the ‘innovation is good and we need more of it’ policy discussions to explore the fundamental nature of innovation, and its underlying dynamics of ‘creative destruction’. The discussion focused on how to harness the power of innovation while recognising that there is a flip side that should not be ignored. Innovation is not a magic bullet that will solve all problems, and the policy-focus on innovation should not disguise underlying trade-offs and choices. While over the long run, innovation has clearly been a tremendous force for improved living standards, in the short run high rates of innovation can be disruptive for society - for example when it leads to jobless growth rather than job creation. Innovation can also have negative impacts on the environment and on people’s health, as production and consumption processes are affected in complex, often unexpected ways.

Innovation therefore requires in-depth understanding, the panel warned, to ensure that more of it leads to real human progress, and to manage the short- and long-run trade-offs that might exist. “Rather than ‘creative destruction’ we are increasingly seeing a process of ‘destructive creation’, in which new products and services diminish or destroy the usage value of existing ones, to the benefit of a few rather than many. It is thinkable that there is something such as ‘too much innovation’ ” said Luc Soete, professor of International Economic Relations and Director-Dean of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance at Maastricht University, as well as Director of UNU-MERIT. 

Policy-makers thus face the challenge not simply to stimulate innovation, but to stimulate the right kind of innovation, Barry Bozeman, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Georgia, told the audience, adding that this requires an clear idea of ‘public value’ and how to measure it.

Governments implement a wide range of policies to encourage innovation, sometimes with little evidence of how effective they are. “Evidence for their impact, in terms of actually stimulating innovation, is often limited, widely dispersed and exists in many different forms – from academic research to internally-commissioned programme evaluations” said Jakob Edler, Professor of Innovation Policy and Strategy and Executive Director at the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, adding that this is a challenge for developing robust evidence-based innovation policy.

STOA chair MEP Paul Rübig said that it is important to assess how European research and innovation policy affects the different countries and regions in Europe, as its design may work better for some countries than for others, meaning that diversification of innovation policy is vital. In particular  a better understanding of innovation policy for the service sector is important, as this is the largest and fastest growing sector, making up more than two-thirds of European economies.

Alan Hughes, Professor of Enterprise Studies at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Centre for Business Research, warned that it is crucial to not simply copy policy that seemed to have worked in other sectors, in other countries or in other times: “Innovation policy sometimes has a ritual dimension, in which policy-makers apply certain principles from elsewhere – often the US – because it seems like the thing to do, rather than because of clear evidence that it will work in their particular situation. Innovation policy has to be context-specific, and this is a big challenge for those who want to develop European-level innovation policy” .

This was echoed by Mariana Mazzucato, economist and Professor in Science and Technology Policy at SPRU of the University of Sussex, who stressed: “Rather than mythologizing certain actors such as venture capital or SMEs, and demonizing others such as the state - especially nowadays with the austerity obsession – policy-makers need to look at how innovation systems really work.”

Innovation policy must be evidence-based and policy-makers must be wary of wishful thinking, concluded Conference Chair Professor Sir Roderick Floud, European Science Foundation and Provost of Gresham College, arguing that the “science of innovation” can provide the necessary tools to understand the dynamics and full impact of innovation and innovation policy. It is vital that policy-makers take note, because in the current economic climate we cannot afford mistakes.


For further information please contact:

At the European Science Foundation (ESF): Dr. Rifka Weehuizen, +

At the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA): Dr Theodoros Karapiperis, +

Notes to editors

The European Science Foundation (ESF):

The European Science Foundation (ESF) was established in 1974 to provide a common platform for its Member Organisations to advance European research collaboration and explore new directions for research.  It is an independent organisation, owned by 72 Member Organisations which are research funding organisations and research performing organisations, academies and learned societies from 30 countries.  ESF promotes collaboration in research itself, in funding of research and in science policy activities at the European level (

Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA):

STOA is an official organ of the European Parliament, but its work is carried out in partnership with external experts. These can be research institutes, universities, laboratories, consultancies or individual researchers contracted to help prepare specific projects. STOA increasingly focuses upon round-table expert discussions, conferences and workshops with associated or consequent studies. Members of Parliament and invited experts from EU institutions, international institutions, universities, specialist institutes, academies and other sources of expertise worldwide can jointly participate in the analysis of current issues at these events (