Times of crisis and opportunity

OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021

Times of Crisis and Opportunity

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Key findings

  • This edition focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic, which 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 and technology offer the only exit strategy from COVID-19. They have played essential roles in providing a better understanding of the virus and its transmission, and in developing hundreds of candidate vaccines over a very short period. The pandemic has underscored more than in other recent crises the importance of science and innovation to both preparing for and reacting 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 to future crises. It is a wake-up call that highlights the need to recalibrate STI policies so that they better orient research and innovation efforts towards sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency goals.

The STI system response to COVID-19 has been decisive, rapid and significant

Research and innovation systems have, in many ways, responded impressively to the pandemic. Vaccine candidates with high reported efficacy have been developed with unprecedented speed. At the same time, COVID-19 has tested the limits of research and innovation systems, demonstrating their inherent capacities and flexibility, but also revealing areas where resilience and future preparedness must improve. The pandemic has been a catalyst accelerating trends already underway, opening access to publications, increasing the use of digital tools, enhancing international STI collaboration, spurring a variety of public-private partnerships and encouraging the active engagement of new players, such as citizen scientists, the maker movement and philanthropies. But the pandemic continues to pose major challenges for innovation systems, endangering key productive and innovation capabilities, especially in hard-hit sectors.
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STI policies to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency

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 mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to its uneven distributional effects. Science for policy 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 rethink STI policies. Governments should be better equipped with the instruments and capabilities they need to orient science and innovation efforts towards the goals of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency (see figure). Research systems will need to be reformed to promote the transdisciplinary approaches needed to deal with complex, multifaceted problems. Improving the ability of societies to react to crises like COVID-19 will also require the reform of PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths.
The global nature of many societal challenges suggests that solutions will require international co-operation. The momentum created by the pandemic offers opportunities 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. Many key uncertainties will remain over the next few months and years, and governments will need to develop dynamic capabilities to adapt and learn in the face of rapidly changing conditions .
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  1. The STI policy mix needs to be more targeted
  2. Government R&D expenditures may need to shift to reflect new priorities
  3. Growing government debt could lead to austerity, and some hard choices for research and innovation policy
  4. Postgraduate training regimes need reforming to support a diversity of career paths
  5. Global challenges require global solutions
  6. Building government capabilities to meet future challenges  will be a major challenge in itself

Even before the pandemic struck, governments around the world had been seeking to leverage STI to support socio-economic transitions to sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency. In particular, several national strategies, agendas and plans aimed to coordinate governmental and STI systems’ efforts around achieving specific societal goals, such as addressing the climate emergency. STIP Compass can be used to consult such strategies and other policies that tackle societal challenges and improve overall wellbeing. 

Data and resources

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