European questions | University of Oxford
Robert Madelin, Senior Adviser for Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre
Robert Madelin, Senior Adviser for Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre

Image credit: Tom Calver

European questions

Tom Calver

'I am coming here to listen to you.'

It's an odd comment to hear at the start of what is billed as a talk by the European Commission's senior advisor on innovation. Surely we are there to listen to Robert Madelin, Magdalen College graduate, twenty-two year veteran of the European bureaucracy, currently in the European Political Strategy Centre, the Commission presidency's think tank?

But as the event at Oxford's Department of Pharmacology progresses, it becomes clear that Robert Madelin is a man on a mission. That's literally true: he has been instructed to prepare a report on European and EU member state innovation policy and ask should more or different things be done. And while he is happy to share his views, he also wants to know what the Oxford audience has to say in answer to a few questions.

We will come to those questions in a moment, because with his last five years spent in science, technology and innovation. Mr Madelin's own views should not be discounted – they will doubtless shape the report as much as those of the many people he will consult.

He begins by noting that at a time of profound disruption, none of us know what the future will hold. The answer, he suggests, is not to run for the high ground but to think about how we embrace change while defending our values. In the face of this change, innovation is key:

Wealth in the 21st century depends for Europe on continuing to invent.

Robert Madelin, Senior Adviser for Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre

'The sophistication of our societies, which is what we call civilisation, depends on wealth and wealth in the 21st century depends for Europe on continuing to invent. I also think that inventiveness and innovation are an intrinsic part of Western European civilisation and if we lose the ability to create the new tools for the world as a whole, which Europe has been doing for hundreds of years, it will be a different Europe.'

He says that the way in which we approach innovation is itself changing; innovation now depends on networks far more than previously. Mr Madelin counsels that innovation is at a dangerous stage: is understood enough that people – especially politicians – have grasped the label and use it, but not enough that we have grasped the reality. There are still questions about the size, the shape and the dynamics that best foster innovative networks.

On size and shape, Mr Madelin advises that academics should not be constrained by the boundaries of their discipline – discoveries will come at the crossovers of traditionally separate subjects – or by thinking in terms of individual towns or institutions. Oxford, he notes, is, in global terms, no great distance from London or even Cambridge. To focus solely on the innovation cluster around any one of those towns may be to miss an opportunity.

Yet, it is the dynamics of innovation that most appear to occupy him and it is here he asks his three questions, after beginning with some warnings.

There are fewer instinctive believers than you think

He cautions that just one in five people are instinctive supporters of science research funding. Trying to sell science simply by describing science only works for that 20%. The other 80% need to be convinced.

That affects private funding for science: Mr Madelin observes that there is plenty of money in Europe searching for an investment opportunity but people tend not to invest in things they do not understand. The onus, he adds, is on scientists to make credible and well-presented requests for funding.

If we had twice as much risk capital would inventions happen twice as fast, and if so, what tax and other regimes would help to make that happen?

Is it possible from an invention point of view to argue in favour of a more accommodating regulatory regime?

Robert Madelin, Senior Adviser for Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre

And so his first question is about investment. Noting that – per head – the US and Israel spend around twice what Europe does in terms of risk capital he muses: 'If we had twice as much risk capital would inventions happen twice as fast, and if so, what tax and other regimes would help to make that happen?'

That lack of instinctive support also affects public science policy – not just in terms of funding, but also regulation: 'Is it possible from an invention point of view to argue in favour of a more accommodating regulatory regime?'

A more permissive regime might allow innovations to be used for a period, gauge their impact and then create regulation in response to that, The suggestion seems to be that rather than waiting for regulators to say yes, we should instead create a regulatory environment where new ideas can go ahead until there is a reason to say no. That approach to risk similarly should apply to funding: public funders need to accept failures if they are to fund truly innovative ideas. It is here that the researchers in the audience are most forthright in giving their views – wanting less complexity on the path from discovery to delivery.

Talking to me afterwards, Robert Madelin clearly agrees: 'What I heard there is that it's pretty awful at the moment if you want to get innovation to market. What's standing between us and continued success today is not inventiveness, it's the ability to incentivise and to bring to market in good condition the great stuff we're doing.

'We have a lot to do to become more accommodating so that researchers who invent things get real incentives to acquire their rights to use the IP, to get investment help without too many strings attached, and to get the goods out into the market.'

Citing experiences in the US, Switzerland and Italy, he points to the additional benefit of that approach: 'If you let your inventors invent and you let them profit from their invention they are extremely grateful – they come back with hundreds of millions of pound of gifts to the foundation.'

Everyone has a vote

His final warning is about applications for research funding in the EU. The thirteen most recent members of the EU are all applying for and receiving a declining portion of its science funds. In fact, since 2009, their share has declined by a fifth. While there may be a number of reasons for this, Mr Madelin is concerned that around half the EU appears to be losing faith in science and research.

What is the collective responsibility of universities that are highly successful – such as Oxford – to help lagging regions and universities across the continent to catch up and feel they are potential winners in the innovation game?

Robert Madelin, Senior Adviser for Innovation, European Political Strategy Centre

If you think that just means more research money for everyone else, think again: each of those nations has a vote on the EU budget. If they do not see science funding as having a benefit for them they are more likely to support cuts to the science budget – less research money for everyone.

So the third question is about partnership: 'What is the collective responsibility of universities that are highly successful – such as Oxford – to help lagging regions and universities across the continent to catch up and feel they are potential winners in the innovation game?'

Such mutual support may be better for everyone in the longer term by bringing more people into what he calls the tissue of innovation, and so demonstrating the importance of science to governments and publics.

But as the interview ends, the man with the mission to keep Europe innovating wants to make clear that he is asking the questions because he does not have all the answers:

'I’m only at the beginning of my journey. I can’t lay down the law as to what I think.'