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Research and innovation can be powerful instruments to address major societal challenges. Horizon 2020, the current EU framework programme for research and innovation, targets challenges in fields such as health, energy, transport, environment and security. The next programme, Horizon Europe, will focus even more strongly on mission-driven research and innovation in the fields of climate change, cancer, oceans, carbon neutrality and food.

This new approach at the European level also has an impact on national innovation agencies and their work with research and innovation funding. “We talk a lot about mission-driven research and innovation programmes, but they are not yet widely practiced,” says Ian Cresswell, Head of International Affairs at Luxinnovation and TAFTIE chair in 2019. “However, as the EU has really taken up this new approach it is important that national innovation agencies havean in-depth understanding and are able to adopt this approach in a not too distant future.”

Holistic view

Mr Cresswell and his colleagues therefore chose “Mission-oriented research and innovation: what does it mean for innovation agencies?” as the title of the TAFTIE annual conference hosted by Luxinnovation. The first topic on the agenda was to discuss the potential and limitations of mission-driven programmes.

It is not about picking winners or winning technologies.

According to Robbert Fisher, Managing Director of the Joint Institute for Innovation Policy, complex global challenges such as those addressed by Horizon Europe require cross-sector, cross-border and cross-policy solutions. This also implies that programme managers need to have a holistic view that goes beyond individual project proposals and analyse how the different projects fit together and complement each other. Furthermore, Mr Fisher pointed out that policy makers need to be careful in how they formulate missions. “It is not about picking winners or winning technologies,” he warned and exemplified by saying that “solving energy storage” would be a much better formulation of a mission than “developing battery technology”.

Key learnings from practitioners

Luxinnovation invited several agencies with experience of moving towards or working with mission-driven programmes to share the lessons learnt. “Norway is facing a ‘triple transition’ imperative,” said one of the speakers, Anne Kjersti Fahlvik, Executive Director of the Research Council of Noway (RCN). “Firstly, we need to move from our dependence on oil and gas revenues towards a more diversified and robust economy. Secondly, we have to develop a research and innovation system that produces knowledge that is both excellent and relevant, and thirdly, use this knowledge for addressing societal challenges.”

In order to rise to these challenges, the RCN named its 2015-2020 strategy “research for innovation and sustainability” and revamped its structure and programmes accordingly. “We have made a real ‘clean-up’ of our organisation, schemes and processes,” said Ms Fahlvik. “We now have a portfolio approach to everything we do and make sure that we cover the whole spectrum, from basic research to entrepreneurs and the public sector, in each action.”

Looking beyond Europe

For further inspiration, Luxinnovation also invited Kentaro Morita, General Director of the Global Technology Research Unit of the Japanese organisation NEDO, to give a presentation. Mr Morita explained how his organisation was created in the wake of the two major oil crises in the 1970 with the mission of finding ways to substitute oil with renewable energies.

“To make our mission clear, the agency was named New Energy Development Organisation (NEDO),” he said. “However, it soon became obvious that our R&D activities related to new energies contributed to increasing the efficiency and cutting the costs of industry. Our name was therefore changed to New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation, and our objectives extended to enhancing industrial technology.”

NEDO had a clear mission from the very beginning, and 40 years later we have achieved this goal.

NEDO’s R&D activities have had, for example, a major impact on photovoltaic power generation. The organisation was able to reduce the cost of a model cell to 1/200 and to develop fuel cells for household use. “NEDO had a clear mission from the very beginning, and 40 years later we have achieved this goal through the development of photovoltaics,” Mr Morita said. An inspiring example for European innovation agencies that are starting their development in the direction of mission-driven R&D and innovation programmes.

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