Observations for mission-led innovation policy

21 July 2022 | Read time: 5 minutes

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‘Don’t pick winners’ is among the advice for policy makers who are engaging with popular ideas on mission-led research in science and technology.

The recommendation comes from editors Karl Wennberg and Christian Sandström who have recently published the open-access book ‘Questioning the Entrepreneurial State’, delving into the practical realities of implementing mission-led research – a popular concept proposed by University College London Professor Mariana Mazzucato.

Wennberg and Sandström discussed the findings of their book during a SfTI professional development webinar hosted by Director Professor Sally Davenport in July 2022. They highlighted real life experiences of European countries in deploying mission-led research and noted some learnings.

One pitfall occurred when states picked winners, rather than allowing the best idea to surface over time. Policy makers should set the direction, end goal or vision, but should remain ‘tech neutral’ on how state, business and academic collaborations should get there. To do otherwise ran the risk of artificially buoying one (potentially inferior) idea above better ones. This particularly tended to happen when a sense of urgency saw policy makers adopt and coddle an early idea, rather than impassively assessing all alternatives to determine the best option.

The pair also noted that the collaborative philosophy of mission-led research approaches did not always account for the fierce competition found in the business world, nor the opportunistic behaviours of companies vying for ‘free government money’.

... the opportunistic behaviours of companies vying for ‘free government money’.

Other advice for policy makers included assessing the pipeline of up-and-coming skilled technology students and comparing that with other technology-oriented economies, such as Sweden, South Korea and Singapore. These students should also be fluent in elementary business awareness, and mechanisms should be in place for ensuring this was the case.

The authors observed that governments could best further the efforts of technology entrepreneurs by not just providing the conditions for success, but also actively addressing barriers and other problems. They noted that states often stopped short of removing trade restrictions or other barriers because these were sensitive and difficult undertakings and that there was a general expectation that collaborating teams needed to battle through these issues on their own. It was also important for states to be alert to mission capture, whereby business players aligned with the mission just long enough to take the money before diverting it to their preferred intentions.

Meet the editors

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Karl Wennberg holds the Barbara Bergström Chair of Educational Leadership and Quality and is a research fellow at the House of Innovation, both at the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden). He is one of the leading scholars on entrepreneurship in Europe, with over 60 published scholarly articles in high-ranking journals and 10 books. His research is on entrepreneurship, innovation policy, and organisation theory, where public policy implication of theoretical and empirical research has been a common thread in his research. 




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Christian Sandström is Senior Associate Professor of Digital Business at Jönköping International Business School (Sweden) and the Ratio Institute (Sweden). His research concerns innovation policy and the interplay between technological and institutional change. Sandström has published more than 30 academic articles and authored several books on the topic of innovation policy. He frequently advices policymakers and managers on topics of industrial renewal and innovation. In 2018, he received the Pedagogical Prize at Chalmers University of Technology for innovative teaching methods.