The STI system response to COVID-19 has been decisive, rapid and significant. But the pandemic has also revealed gaps that need filling to improve overall system resilience and preparedness for future crises. The OECD STI Outlook calls on governments to re-set STI policies to better equip themselves with the instruments and capabilities to direct innovation efforts towards the goals of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency.
From climate change to population ageing to far-reaching geopolitical adjustments, the world is facing unprecedented changes marked by uncertainties and unknowns. These are exacerbated by disruptive shocks, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic crisis. The fast pace of technological change, including developments in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, adds to these uncertainties and makes policy oversight of emerging technologies increasingly difficult.
These developments present opportunities and challenges for science and innovation (S&I) policy. In a time of rapid change and high uncertainty, responsible policy-making requires identifying and preparing for new and unexpected developments. Accordingly, 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 pandemic has also stretched research and innovation systems to their limits, revealing gaps that need filling to improve overall system resilience and preparedness for future crises. It is a wake-up call for all and highlights the need to re-set science, technology and innovation (STI) policies to better equip governments with the instruments and capabilities to direct innovation efforts towards the goals of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency.
While the COVID-19 crisis threatens the resilience of innovation systems, it also calls on them to provide new solutions to the immediate health, societal and economic challenges posed by the pandemic. In the longer term, investments in R&D and innovation will be essential to promote economic recovery and sustainable growth.
Scientific evidence related to COVID-19 is conditional and dynamic. How can scientists and policy-makers most effectively work in a situation where much of the evidence is uncertain and rapidly evolving?
Digital technologies are transforming our economies, but are also raising new inclusiveness challenges. How can governments ensure that digitalisation benefits all? In addition, what roles could innovation policies play?
Academic structures that mainly link training and careers to ‘research excellence’ - as measured by publication outputs - are not fully adequate to meet the future needs of science and of society as a whole. This poses several important questions for STI policy.
OECD countries perceive the need to not only innovate more, but well, and to make the innovation process more goal-oriented, inclusive and anticipatory. Engaging governance within the innovation process has the potential to embed public good considerations into technologies.
Managing a wide diversity of maritime economic activities and exploiting marine resources requires judiciously improving ocean-related knowledge and taking precautions to preserve fragile marine ecosystems.
The world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and many uncertainties remain. In the short-term, governments should continue their support for science and innovation activities that aim to develop solutions to the pandemic and to mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to the uneven distributional effects of COVID-19. Scientific advice will remain in the spotlight as governments seek to strike the right balance in their responses to COVID-19. This will affect public perceptions of science that could have long-term implications for science-society relations.
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.
STIP Compass is a joint initiative of the European Commission and the OECD that aims to collect together in one place quantitative and qualitative data on national trends in STI policy.
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The Main Science and Technology Indicators (MSTI) database provides a set of indicators that reflect the level and structure of efforts in the field of science and technology undertaken from 1981 onwards by OECD Member countries and seven non-member economies: Argentina, China, Romania, Russian Federation, Singapore, South Africa, Chinese Taipei.
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The OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook is a biennial publication that aims to inform policy makers and analysts on recent and future changes in global STI patterns and their potential implications on and for national and international STI policies. It also serves to showcase the STI policy work of the OECD’s Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy and its working parties, and to explore new topics that might be covered in future projects. The latest edition of the STI Outlook is largely devoted to the impacts of COVID-19 on research and innovation systems and their responses to the crisis.
An important source of the STI Outlook’s value added is its forward-looking analysis and its potential to synthesise various strands of work and opinion. The STI Outlook leverages various types of content developed across multiple lines of activity, including thematic OECD project work, OECD statistics, and country policy data in the EC-OECD STIP Compass, as well as the new STIP COVID-19 Watch which monitors STI policies tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The STI Outlook has a dual format. First, this website provides a structured repository of various types of content, including thematic and country analysis, statistics, qualitative policy data analysis, and opinion pieces. The OECD will update this material throughout as new content becomes available. Then in January 2021, the OECD will publish an e-book containing the STI Outlook’s main findings and messages.
You can contact the OECD’s STI Outlook team to find out more.