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Plenum I. Strategic intelligence in science and research policy and structural implications for the research system



Engelbert Beyer , Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Prof. Dr. Michael Decker, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Stefaan Hermans, European Commission
Prof. Dr. Stefan Kuhlmann, University of Twente
Derek Scally, Irish Times (Facilitator)


The session focused on the role of strategic intelligence in science and research policy and in particular the structural implications for the research system. Against the backdrop of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the research world during the past two decades, the aim of the discussion was to reflect on how this influenced the motivations of the superordinate actors at the national level and European level.

Major trends in innovation policy approaches from a German perspective

In his opening statement, Engelbert Beyer pointed out three major developments that are currently of particular interest for the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The first is a growing trend toward coordinative policy approaches, such as the German High-Tech Strategy, which aims to coordinate all R&D agencies at the federal level. At the same time, policy measures focus on priority areas where it is possible to create high added value. The second is a change in innovation policies toward a “mission-oriented approach”. Ten to fifteen years ago, innovation policies mainly followed what might be called a “technology-push approach”, which focused on investments in new scientific and technological developments. Today’s policies are oriented towards larger social or economic goals and seek implementation schemes to reach those overarching goals. Third, strategic planning is now embedded in a multi-actor system, which means the overall goals of R&D are set not only by federal agencies but also by corporate research strategies, independent research organizations like the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, universities and other actors.

The concept of strategic planning from the perspective of innovation policy research

Stefan Kuhlmann’s opening statement highlighted the fact that the concept of strategic intelligence was put forward by innovation policy researchers some time ago. In recent years he watched with great interest as many of these ideas were adopted and implemented by innovation policy. The basic idea behind the concept of strategic intelligence is that innovation policy acts within a multi-actor system comprising various levels (research, policy, economy, organizations, national, European). Strategic intelligence was designed as a research approach to better understand the interrelations and interactions within this system based on empirical evidence using e.g. evaluations, foresight, technology assessment or benchmarking exercises. The approach has gained ground during the past two decades, and, in the view of Stefan

Kuhlmann, it may have even taken hold of too much. He therefore warned against an overly mechanistic and naïve use of strategic intelligence tools in research planning and policy. Rather, he said there is a need to apply this approach in a cautious and reflective way. Policy researchers and policymakers constantly have to ask themselves whether the assumptions used when applying this approach are still valid, since the world of science and innovation policy is changing very quickly. There are new demands coming from society as well as from the staggering internationalization of science systems and research activities. New players in the system, such as those from Asia, the development of international collaboration networks, and the high international mobility of scientists all pose new challenges that science and innovation policies have to respond to.

Strategic planning implemented – the perspective of the Helmholtz Association

Michael Decker’s opening statement focused on the specific perspective of the Helmholtz Association and presented some thoughts on its program planning approach. All Helmholtz Centers are asked to develop five-year research programs that define a framework for the basic funding they receive. Although five years seems like too long a time to predict what their future research needs will be, the program planning approach does provide a reasonable amount of flexibility. Changes can always be made to the research program if good arguments are presented against the priorities that were originally set. Thus the Helmholtz approach to program planning can be viewed as one good example of a strategic tool applied in a flexible and thoughtful manner.

The European Commission’s agenda for Europe’s higher education system

Stefaan Hermans’ opening remarks raised awareness for the Communication from the Commission entitled “Supporting growth and jobs – an agenda for the modernization of Europe’s higher education systems”, published in September 2011. His intention was to place the reform agenda drafted by the Commission Communication within the wider political and policy context of the European Union. As the main point of reference, he highlighted the Europe 2020 strategy, which provides the framework for future EU policies by setting overarching goals of smart, sustainable, more inclusive growth. The science and research system is an important vehicle to reach these goals. The central idea from the EU 2020 strategy is therefore one of an “innovation union” that addresses the structural weaknesses in the European innovation system. One of the main weaknesses identified in this context is the failure to transform knowledge into innovation, economic growth and employment. In this regard, the role of universities seems to be of crucial importance and should be strengthened. This is why the Commission Communication has placed a strong emphasis on how higher education can be connected to research and innovation and why it has drafted a package of measures that address the future quantitative and qualitative level of education and research.

Based on the opening statements from the panel members, the discussion focused on three items. The first was the role of politics in creating favorable research environments versus setting research objectives. The second con-

cerned the role of (international) rankings for the strategic orientation of research organizations, and the third involved the relationship between policy approaches at the national (German) level and EU level.

The role of politics in research planning

As Derek Scally pointed out, the Commission Communication raised concerns – especially in the German debate – that the Commission does not place enough emphasis on research. This led to the question of which role the Commission wants to take in strategic research planning.

Stefaan Hermans said that the Communication was primarily a way for the Commission to exercise its right and obligation to initiate a debate about future policy objectives and approaches. The objective of the paper was thus to ensure that larger goals of R&D policy are formulated, articulated and debated and to put the universities in the center of this debate. The responsibility of the researchers to set specific research priorities obviously remains untouched by this debate.

Stefan Kuhlmann acknowledged this general intention of the Commission Communication and expressed full agreement with the importance of higher education and research. Yet he called also attention to some contradictions not addressed appropriately by the Commission Communication. First, he asserted that the Commission Communication appears to treat research like an economic commodity. Research and innovation can of course have a significant economic impact, but investments in research cannot be made as if research was a commodity. Second, he emphasized that there are contradictory demands that affect universities in particular. On one hand, large organizations are needed to provide higher education to some 40 percent of young people. On the other, creative research needs flexibility and protected space within these large organizations. In the eyes of Stefan Kuhl-mann, the Commission Communication falls short in dealing with these contradictions and more detailed organizational challenges.

Engelbert Beyer added that although it is essential to increase R&D budgets to improve the innovation system, the outcome of policy interventions is difficult to measure. Due to the complex interrelations in the multi-actor system of research and innovation the impact of policy measures is often not easily to evaluate. Policy therefore has to focus on two areas. The first requires the creation of favorable framework conditions for universities and research institutions, while the second requires them to stimulate and strengthen “smart specialization”. In the increasingly international innovation system, specialization is the foundation of (national) success.

Michael Decker agreed that even innovation researchers are not able to predict which kind of research is most likely to lead to innovation. He concluded that policies should not have too narrow a thematic focus. Research shows that most breakthrough innovations have emerged from long-term developments that could only be reconstructed in hindsight.

The role of rankings for the strategic orientation of research organizations

Another issue raised by the Commission Communication and discussed by the panel was the concern expressed by numerous researchers that research policy is increasingly applying management language and tools to the research system. In particular, the increasing importance of rankings and approaches to tabulate success is viewed with serious skepticism on the part of researchers and education stakeholders.

Stefaan Hermans defended the approach of the Commission to improve the evidence base for policymaking by developing better analysis and evaluation tools. In his opinion, rankings are now a matter of fact and are widely recognized by universities, professors, students, policymakers and other stakeholders. The Commission therefore aims to improve ranking tools rather than neglect the impact that rankings already have on the research system. A feasibility study showed that there is scope to develop a multi-dimensional ranking which takes into account the specific character and strength of the European university system and research system.

Referring to a recent journal article (A. Rip in “Asian Research Policy” Vol. 2, 1, 2011), Stefan Kuhlmann opposed this position by citing the illusion that an “excellence bubble” will develop within the next ten to twenty years. According to this idea, the “global race for reputation” will lead to a situation where rankings are used to such a degree that they develop into “excellence derivatives”. Like financial derivatives, the abstract ranking results will have nearly no relation to the real situation and the real performance of the universities and research institutions. As the story goes, the “excellence bubble” will burst because strong US universities in particular will quit the rankings in favor of providing liberty and protected spaces to enable creative research.

Engelbert Beyer offered a German perspective, saying that rankings might create a negative bias due to the dual structure of the German research system, with its universities in one camp and non-university research institutions in the other. For the German system, it would therefore be better to have rankings that focus on clusters of excellence rather than on single institutions.

Adding to this, Michael Decker said that he would appreciate a greater diversity of rankings that address the varying interests of those being ranked (students, professors, universities). This could also prevent the normative impact of “one-size-fits-all” rankings and the resulting adaptation strategies adopted by universities and research institutions that could lead to less diversity in the research system.

Relation between national and EU policy approaches

The critical discussion on the Commission Communication raised the question of whether the EU approach produced tensions with the national policy approaches or whether there is a larger consensus on the future direction of research and innovation policy at the different levels. Engelbert Beyer stated that from his point of view a policy shift is occurring at the national level and the European level towards a stronger focus on demand and societal needs. This “mission-oriented approach” is the starting point for the development of policy programs such as those in the framework of the German High-Tech Strategy and in the context of the EU 2020 strategy. The European Commission is therefore an important partner of the German Ministry of Education and Research within the multi-actor system.

Stefan Kuhlmann underscored this position by drawing attention to the new European treaty, which states that future research and innovation policy will be the responsibility of both the national governments and the EU Commission. However, the question of how coordination between both levels will actually be implemented is still unanswered, and the process has only just begun.


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