Rising to the challenge: science, technology and innovation for the benefit of all

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This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and New Societal Contract

Rapidly ageing populations, the impacts of climate change, the ongoing slowdown in productivity growth – trends like these give rise to “grand societal challenges” that increasingly shape the conduct of science, technology and innovation (STI) and societal and policy expectations of their contributions. If well-managed and used in conjunction with social innovation and policy reforms, scientific and technological advances can alleviate many of the grand societal challenges. For example, gene editing could revolutionise today’s medical therapies, nanomaterials and bio-batteries could provide new clean energy solutions, and artificial intelligence (AI) could become an important drug discovery tool over the next decade.

Along these lines, governments are seeking to redirect technological change towards more economically, socially and environmentally beneficial technologies. This shift has given impetus to a new era of “mission-oriented” STI policy, with governments looking to work more closely with the business sector and civil society to steer the direction of science and technology towards ambitious, socially relevant goals. Such partnerships are important given the private sector is by far the largest investor in STI.

Read: OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2018 (19 November 2018)

However, current trends in public research and development (R&D) spending may not be commensurate with the corresponding ambition and challenges delineated in mission-oriented policies. Since 2010, government’s direct funding of R&D expenditures in the OECD as a whole and in almost all Group of Seven countries have stagnated or decreased, not only in real value and relative to gross domestic product, but also as a share of total government expenditures.

Related to this decrease of direct government funding but also to the increase of other sources of research funding, the share of government in total funding of R&D decreased by 4 percentage points (from 31% to 27%) in the OECD area between 2009 and 2016 (in real terms). Although this decrease has been compensated in many countries by an increase in R&D tax credits, governments may still find it difficult to steer research and innovation activities in desired strategic directions.

The speed and uncertainty of technological change also challenge policymakers to exert sufficient oversight of emerging technologies. While new technologies like AI and gene editing present great opportunities, they could also lead to considerable harm, if used inappropriately. Preventing, correcting or mitigating such negative effects has become more important – yet more difficult – as technology has become more complex and widespread. Governments therefore need to become more agile, more responsive, more open to stakeholder participation and better informed of the opportunities and threats of emerging technologies. Some governments are already experimenting with new anticipatory and participatory approaches to policy design and delivery, but such practices have yet to be adopted widely in STI policymaking. Consequently, an ever-greater need exists for exchanging information on such policies, as well as the factors underlying their successes and failures. The STI Outlook 2018 features concrete examples of national policy initiatives that should promote international policy learning in the field. 

Michael Keenan

Senior Analyst, OECD