Policies for emerging technologies

Rationale and objectives

A range of dynamic new disciplines and technologies are reshaping the landscape in terms of what science can achieve. Biotechnology, genomics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and new developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs), physics, engineering, sustainable growth and the search for alternative sources of energy are now part of national research agendas and are seen as instrumental in meeting global challenges as well as societal needs at home. They are also seen as strong contributors to future economic growth in an increasingly technology-driven world.
The emergence of these new technologies, and their increasing convergence, presents both opportunities and challenges for policy makers. National research agendas, historically focused on long-term strategies and basic research funding, must now be continuously reviewed and updated to take account of the emergence of new fields in science and to optimise ways to take discoveries from these new fields forward.

Major aspects

Defining which technologies are truly “emerging” is difficult because so few of the usual metrics – journal citations, number of researchers in a new field, budgets and products on the market – are readily available. Technologies such as synthetic biology are clearly emerging: little was known about them even a few years ago. Technologies such as ICTs have been in existence for some time but in recent years have accelerated so rapidly in terms of size and scope that they bear little resemblance to those of a generation ago. Moreover, many emerging technologies are defined less by the parameters of a particular field (biology, physics, etc.) than by the global challenges they seek to address (the search for new sources of clean energy, the effort to deal with Alzheimer's disease and dementia in an ageing society, the provision of safe drinking water, etc.). Any of these challenges is beyond the grasp of a single traditional scientific discipline. They are being addressed by scientists who work together in decentralised and multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts.
A discussion about emerging and converging technologies is therefore a discussion about both the technology platforms themselves and the new ways in which scientists are collaborating to use them. The process of developing these emerging technologies is greatly aided by advances in ICTs, especially the massive shifts in computational power, and by the Internet, which breaks down the barriers of time and space. They allow the engineer in Sydney to work alongside the biologist in San Francisco and they both can collaborate with the bioinformatician in Bangalore to try to solve a problem in, say, systems biology. New research platforms, such as “next generation” gene sequencing, in and of itself an emerging technology that is reshaping the study of the life sciences, are also strong contributors to this process. Aside from the core scientific competencies required, new ancillary career fields are emerging, with bioinformatics but one example of a career field developed in response to the convergence of ICTs and the life sciences.
The move towards emerging and converging technologies is also raising challenges for integrating concepts such as intellectual property (IP) between fields that have developed distinctly different IP doctrines over time. Biotechnology may be heavily patent-oriented, while software has taken the path of copyright. Other challenges include the development of statistics and metrics to measure emerging and converging technologies adequately, the development of new funding models to promote emerging technologies, the need to overcome the challenges to interdisciplinary research and to re-examine the structure of research institutes, and public engagement and acceptance of emerging technologies.

Recent policy trends

Most countries are clearly trying to harness advances in emerging technologies and these are being well integrated in national research strategies (Table 9.2). They respond to these developments in a myriad of ways. In developing their national research agendas, some have adopted policies that focus on developing specific technologies; examples include Canada's Non-reactor-based Isotope Supply Contribution Program, Finland's fuel cell technologies programme, Greece's technological clusters in microelectronics known as Corallia and the United Kingdom's efforts to advance a low-cost constellation of operational small satellites, known as NovaSAR. Some choose to exploit specific resources in which the country might have a competitive advantage; examples include Argentina's efforts to promote production and productivity of textile products based on the camelid fibres found in the Andean region, and Canada's FPInnovations which addresses R&D and the forestry value chain. Others focus more on global challenges in areas such as the environment, energy or health, and less on specific platforms; examples include Australia's Climate Change Science Program, Germany's The New Future of Old Age programme, and Israel's investments in oil-substitute technologies. Still others have adopted a hybrid approach. They have programmes designed to advance certain priority platforms (Stem Cells Australia, Norway's R&D policy emphasis on nanotechnology, biotechnology and ICTs) and programmes focused on priority needs of the world at large and the local population (Argentina's efforts on clean water, Norway's Parliament Majority Agreement on Climate Policy).
Countries' responses to the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2012 policy questionnaire showed that energy (including the development of clean energy and next-generation energy resources) is a top priority, as is fostering advances in biotechnology and genomics, nanotechnology and ICTs.
In addition to the prioritisation of emerging technologies in their research agendas, countries are also making a more definite link between the development of these technologies and the serving of society, particularly in terms of social justice and addressing the needs of the less economically advantaged. The development of efficient work and living environments (Finland), safe drinking water (Argentina), and sustainable and smart cities (Sweden and Italy) for instance, were mentioned several times as both a technological and a societal goal.
Finally, countries see the development of emerging technologies more in terms of an eco-system than in terms of basic research. They are clearly interested in the applicability of these technologies and in ways to optimise their commercialisation. Brazil's SIBRATEC programme and the UK Knowledge Transfer Networks are two examples.

Table 9.2 Policy priorities in emerging fields of research in national STI strategies

Emerging technology area

Number of mentions as a national priority

Energy (including clean energy, alternative energy, etc)


Genomics, biotechnology for human health






Climate change, environmental sustainability and preservation of natural resources


Physical/material sciences and engineering


Food, agriculture and industrial biotechnology


Space exploration


Development of new modes of housing/habitat


Safer or more abundant drinking water


Marine biotechnology




Forest resources




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