Research Policy in Europe and in the US - a Practitioner's View

bridges vol. 13, April 2007 / Feature Article

by Wilhelm B. Gauster

The Global Imperative

gauster_wilhelm.jpgWilhelm Gauster

Hardly a day goes by without the appearance of one or more news items on the imperative of fostering innovation in an increasingly globalized economy. Picked at random, an article in The New York Times of March 17, 2007, ("These Boots Were Made for 22 M.P.H.") describes the challenges faced by entrepreneurs in Russia, and the lack of a "vibrant mechanism to bring together venture capitalists, inventors and entrepreneurs to develop viable commercial products." That process is what is meant by innovation, and the question is how to structure research and development policy to best support it.

All countries, and their groupings, now see themselves as players or potential players in a global network and are addressing the urgent question of how to optimize their respective roles. The established economies, notably the US, are motivated by the need to maintain leadership positions that appear to be eroding in the face of increased competition. This trend, if not halted and even reversed, would have grave consequences for creating jobs and maintaining a high standard of living; decreased innovative capability would impact energy options and national security. Less established economies are motivated by opportunities not available to them before. They now have options resulting from the leveling brought about by globalization (Clyde V. Prestowitz, Three Billion New Capitalists,The Great Shift of Wealth and Power to the East, New York: Basic Books, 2005; Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), if only they can position themselves to take advantage of them. While the US is clearly in the first camp, European countries and Europe as a whole appear to represent a mixture of the two sets of motivations. This blending is due to differing historic antecedents (for Europe, fragmentation and the first steps toward consolidation) and the increased heterogeneity in an expanded European Union.

These differences, among others, are reflected in two recent reports discussed in this issue of bridges, and both deal with the need for science and technology policy to respond to a rapidly changing global environment. Both are reports to their countries' respective legislatures: Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future is the response of the US National Academies to a specific request from the US Congress; Österreichischer Forschungs- und Technologiebericht 2006 was commissioned as a report of the Austrian Federal Government to Parliament on the state of research and technology in the country; it was prepared by a consulting group whose members include government-funded laboratories. It is difficult to assess the level of independence with which advice is given in each case. In the absence of large private universities that exist in the US, European higher education has been more closely linked to government, as has European research through joint public-private organizational models not found in the US. However, because of the massive growth in government support for research and development in the US beginning with World War II, the practical distinctions are less clear. An example of the way this topic is discussed in Europe is the volume Großforschung und Autonomie: Die Geschichte der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft, Neuherberger Vortäge 1 (2006).

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