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Time for transformative innovation

Conference marks 50 years of the Science Policy Research Unit, a leader in economics and science policy

044_SpruAndrew Baker/Getty ImagesAbout 500 researchers, managers, and representatives of civil society organizations from various countries gathered September 7-9, 2016 on the campus of the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom. Participants were challenged to discuss ways in which the process of innovation can be transformed in order to become more effective and contribute to the solution of global problems on subjects such as climate change, energy, and food security. Besides discussing new trends, attendees had plenty of opportunity to examine the past, since the event was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). The program featured 200 presentations by alumni and researchers from that interdisciplinary center, one of the principal international leaders in the economics of innovation, science policy, and social studies about science.

“While we are pleased to celebrate this landmark, we must point out that the world is facing persistent problems and a growing number of crises,” said historian Johan Schot, current director of SPRU, who took advantage of the occasion to announce the launch of the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC), a partnership among research funding agencies from Colombia, South Africa, and Norway. According to Schot, the future agenda for education and research is based on an assumption according to which innovation may have negative impacts that in certain situations may offset the positive ones. The objective of “transformative innovation,” which was the theme of the conference, is to broaden the focus of research and education in science and technology policy and propose new ways to overcome those collateral effects by connecting researchers from different parts of the world and different disciplines. “We need new, radical solutions,” Schot said.

The conference returned to topics that had, in some way, been present at the time SPRU was established, observes economist André Sica de Campos, a professor of public policy at the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and one of the Brazilians who attended the event. “Shortly after it was founded, the institution produced several prospective studies about the future of humanity, which means that serious concerns about technological transformation were already being expressed. Gradually, as is naturally the case, SPRU research subject matter became diversified. By addressing the climate issue and the subject of sustainability, the organization is bringing back those interests,” says Campos, whose doctoral dissertation defended at SPRU in 2006, addressed relationships between universities and industry in Brazil.

A study published in August 2016 by Frederique Lang, a professor at the University of Sussex with Jan Pujols and Nora Blascsok from the institution’s technical staff showed how SPRU research topics have evolved. In the early years, the 1960s, the subjects were more generic, centering on topics like industrial innovation and science policy. During that phase the few dozen SPRU researchers also worked on pioneering studies about the economic development of China. Between 1975 and 1985 a clear pivot was made to research projects related to technological change, unemployment, and energy. Interest in fields like biotechnology, the pharmaceutical industry, and information and communications technology marked the years 1985-2005, while in the last 10 years, studies involving regulatory mechanisms and governance took center stage. Most recently, interest in energy has turned toward studies on sustainability and a greater emphasis has been placed on topics like entrepreneurism and industrial growth.

SPRU has remained influential throughout its lifetime. “The center was born in the 1960s, when research in science and technology policy, social studies about science, and innovation was taking shape and the post-World War II world was beginning to understand and pay attention to the impacts of science and technology,” says Sérgio Queiroz, a professor at the Department of Science and Technology Policy (DPCT) of the Institute of Geosciences (IG) at Unicamp, who has been a visiting researcher at SPRU. “Besides playing a pioneer role, the institution became a standard for researchers and centers in Europe, the United States, and Latin America to look up to,” Queiroz says, observing that the journal Research Policy, affiliated with SPRU, is one of the most respected in its field.

A key figure in the construction of SPRU was economist Christopher Freeman (1921-2010), who was honored on the opening day of the conference in a lecture by British economist Nicholas Stern. Founder and first director of the institution and author of reference works such as The Economics of Industrial Innovation, published in 1974, Freeman made a decisive contribution to the rebirth of Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) as the chief author of studies about innovation. Freeman’s fields of interest included subjects like long-term cycles and national innovation systems. His contribution to the standardization of methodologies and statistics related to research and development led, in the 1960s, to the Frascati Manual, published by the OECD and still a widely-used reference work.

The idea of creating an interdisciplinary center focusing on science and technology policy had been discussed since the early 1960s at the then-recently-founded University of Sussex, but the plan did not become viable until 1966, under Freeman’s leadership. The approach was quite innovative for the time: it was to be an institution oriented toward problem-solving and public policy formulation, with participation by economists, sociologists, political scientists and specialists from other fields. “Researchers used contributions from different disciplines and several different methodologies employed by economists to the extent that they could be useful for examining a problem associated with science, technology, or innovation,” says João Carlos Ferraz, a professor at the Institute of Economics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), one of the first Brazilians to earn a PhD at SPRU. His 1984 dissertation was about the Brazilian shipbuilding industry. “Over the years, bridges were built to other sources of inspiration, like John Maynard Keynes, when policy and investments were studied, and Hyman Minsk, when the subject of financing innovation was introduced,” Ferraz recalls, referring to other exponents of economic heterodoxy.

Since the beginning, SPRU has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. It obtains the bulk of its financing from producing studies commissioned by governments, companies, and organizations. It had a permanent corps of researchers who welcomed renowned visiting researchers. In the early 1980s, it established its own graduate school program, which has been responsible, to date, for more than a thousand dissertations. SPRU continued producing original contributions like those by the Italian Giovanni Dosi who, with Freeman as his advisor, proposed a theoretical framework able to explain the nature of the process of technological change. Dosi formulated concepts such as a technological paradigm and technological trajectory in order to explain the mechanisms by which new technologies emerge and develop.

Doctoral students see the institution as a thriving environment. “Every Friday, everyone would stop what they were doing to attend seminars that featured guests from various disciplines and other institutions in which new ideas and approaches were discussed without regard to disciplinary barriers,” recalls Janaina Pamplona da Costa, a professor at DPCT-Unicamp, who earned her PhD at SPRU in 2012 where she wrote a dissertation on innovation network governance. “It’s a tradition that has been followed less often since the 1980s.” The evaluation process is rigorous. “Students are evaluated annually and must demonstrate what they are producing. Dissertations are defended in an oral examination by a panel which does not include the advisor and can lead to nine different results. It is extremely rare for a dissertation to win approval without any correction. Usually the panel asks that corrections be made and sets a deadline for them to be completed. In some cases, a student must not only redo the work but also schedule a new examination,” Pamplona da Costa says.

The ties between SPRU and Latin America, and with Brazil in particular, have always been close. A recent study conducted for the 50th anniversary celebration shows that with 99 dissertations, the United Kingdom is the country most studied by doctoral candidates—Brazil rates second, with 26 dissertations, ahead of Germany, with 20. “This, in most cases, is the result of papers written by Brazilian students,” says Pamplona da Costa.

The Unicamp DPCT, established in the 1980s as a center for interdisciplinary research, was inspired by the British institution—the founder of the Institute of Geosciences, Argentine geologist Amilcar Herrera, was contracted by Unicamp president Zeferino Vaz after spending three years as a visiting researcher at SPRU. “Herrera was a friend of Christopher Freeman and SPRU became a very important model for the DPCT, so much so that several researchers in the department, like Léa Velho, Renato Dagnino, Janaina Pamplona da Costa and I, went there,” says Sérgio Queiroz, who worked in Brighton with another figure who played an important role in the work of SPRU, Keith Pavitt, (1937-2002) of Great Britain, creator of new methods for measuring innovation and technological change. “There truly was a two-way relationship between Unicamp and Sussex, since Herrera was also important in introducing subjects deemed important to developing countries to place on the SPRU agenda,” João Carlos Ferraz explains. Christopher Freeman’s trip to Brazil in the early 1980s, to attend a conference at Unicamp given by economist Luciano Coutinho, served to enhance a closer relationship, Ferraz notes. “Studies about the competitiveness of Brazilian industry were significantly influenced by the approach used by SPRU, which even today is a reference point for public policy in Brazil,” says André Sica de Campos.

In April 2016, one of the institution’s most influential researchers, Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato, author of the book The Entrepreneurial State, came to Brazil to present the conclusions of a study done in partnership with the Management and Strategic Studies Center (CGEE) that evaluated the Brazilian federal government’s innovation programs. The paper analyzed the performance of five areas that the government considered a priority and that had received funding from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP) under the Inova Empresa program. The study found that the returns on each program varied considerably. While projects in the pharmaceutical and sugar and alcohol industries had performed satisfactorily, those in the defense, petroleum, and aerospace industries had responded more timidly. “In the study, we sought to identify the factors that contributed to achieving the stability of each program,” says Caetano Penna, a researcher associated with SPRU and a professor at the Institute of Economics at UFRJ who took part in drafting the study—and presented its results, alongside Mariana Mazzucato, at the September conference. Penna arrived at SPRU in 2009, after working as an assistant to Venezuelan Carlota Perez, an honorary SPRU researcher. There he earned his PhD on case studies of the United States auto industry and later joined Mazzucato’s team.

Calling card
Relations between SPRU and the University of Sussex have had more highs than lows. “In the early decades, SPRU won major international recognition and thus served as the university’s calling card,” says Ferraz. An initial moment of tension came early in the 1980s when a report in the French newspaper Le Monde suggested that SPRU was better known outside the United Kingdom than domestically and that its significance to the British, responsible for a good part of the financing, was limited. The most difficult phase occurred between 2008 and 2013, when SPRU was forced by the university to merge with the School of Business, Management, and Economics and had to move out of its building, known as the Freeman Center, that had been its headquarters since 2002. Now its home is in the Jubilee Building. “We should note that during that process an important asset was lost: its famous library was dismantled and some of the contents discarded,” wrote Portuguese historian Ângela Ferreira Campos, a SPRU researcher, in a recent study of the history of the institution.

According to Campos, during that phase director Gordon MacKerron had gone so far as to begin negotiations with University College London (UCL) on the idea of transferring SPRU to that institution, but nothing came of it. In 2014, with the arrival of Dutchman Johan Scot, a professor of history of technology and author of studies on transitions to sustainability, SPRU became engaged on fronts like the Nexus network, a partnership with the University of East Anglia and the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, founded by the British government to conduct projects in support of decision-making on food security, energy and the environment. In the opinion of João Carlos Ferraz, the September 2016 conference demonstrated that SPRU is still making significant contributions to the debate about science, technology, and innovation. “These flow from the principles on which SPRU was founded: guidance in problem solving, willingness to renew research programs, multidisciplinarity, and scientific integrity,” he said.