Themes and priorities

Exploring the link between science and innovation

The coronavirus crisis illustrates the topic well. In research, a large number of new projects have been started, sometimes with expedient application and review processes, and organizations like the European Research Council have allowed principal investigators to change their projects to deal with the crisis. Funding agencies like the Research Council of Norway has supported scores of projects to deal with medical and societal aspects of Covid-19 and its policies. Globally, many early studies have been controversial; observers have argued that premature results often have little value, and there seems to be no widespread consensus on the implications of the research carried out on the epidemic. Researchers have argued that the main importance of these activities is to prepare societies for the subsequent epidemics. Innovation, on the other hand, has emerged from the needs and necessities of the new situation. New digital work practices, social innovations and services and apps for communication, sharing and problem-solving have come out of organizations’ and individuals’ experimentation and needs, not out of science. Only in the attempts at making a vaccine against the coronavirus do we see a clear blend of science and innovation, although the race to find a vaccine might not correspond to contemporary ideals of open science and open innovation.

It can be argued that this illustrates the difference between science and innovation very well. Science seeks to build a strong and useful knowledge base. Its results will only rarely lead directly to innovations, even though the long-term societal impacts can be great. Innovation seeks to exploit opportunities, solve problems and meet various forms of needs and demands, and will only rarely require active engagement with research activities. The Eu-SPRI 2021 conference aims to discuss the boundary between these two sets of practices and how it can be usefully conceptualized to inform future policies and address current and future societal challenges. This will also allow the interdisciplinary community that studies science and innovation policies to join the conference to reflect upon their own history, trajectory and frameworks.

Although many different topics are useful for understanding and elaborating the science-innovation boundary, the conference will primarily address four important themes.


Adressing the role of research and innovation in times of crises

Science and innovation policy in crisis situations is of great current interest due to the corona situation. Severe health, economic and other effects of the epidemic are likely to influence science and innovation activities in deep ways. Is there a joint undertaking for science and innovation beyond covering instrumental needs like vaccines? With more work-from-home and travel limitations, what happens to big science and international projects? Does digitalization of work lead to more open or more vulnerable innovation practices, and how can policymakers best support innovators in this situation? What have we learned from earlier crises and their science and innovation policies? Can something be done to develop temporal issues of science and innovation policies like a “sense of urgency” and a “window of opportunity”?

Research, evaluation and policy

There is a persistent emphasise on excellence in research, combined with an assumption of a positive correlation between scientific and societal impact and demands for advice on how to best allocate limited public science budgets. How can our scholarly community better address these demands, as well as providing (self)reflection on the processes which creates them? What is the role of policy in identifying and fostering excellence and world-leading groups, and what is the impact of these policies? More specifically, what is the impact of research evaluation regimes/performance-based funding on the content, practises and quality of science? Can we develop better frames for communicating with policy-makers on these matters? 

The impact of science

A major framing of contemporary science policy is that research activities should lead to some kind of societal impacts – and impacts should be outlined ex ante and evaluated ex post. These challenging aims may also require discussions about the relationship between impact and innovation. Is innovation a particularly important form of impact, and does a majority of impacts emerge in the form of innovations? What are the opportunities and limitations in planning something that by definition is new, unpredictable and long-lasting? Seen from the societal side, what are the research practices that are most important?

Technology push or societal change – the widening scope of STI policies in sustainability transitions

How can science and innovation enable societal transformations towards more sustainable economies and societies? Research and innovation policies are among the most frequently used policy tools to support transformation processes, related to a basic idea about the need to develop radical new technologies to deal with grand challenges, such as the energy transition. However, research and innovation policies have begun to address that sustainability transitions require more than new technologies. In addition, there is also a need to address changes in consumption patterns, behaviors and preferences, and how societal functions are carried out. This shift towards a more encompassing view of sustainability transitions creates a challenge for research and innovation policy approaches. This change actualizes a debate about the scope of innovation policy for grand challenges and even more, a critical reflection on the relationship between science and innovation and also the role they play for societal transformation.