Johan Schot on Research and Innovation Policy in a Time of Change

Professor Johan Schot is the director of the Science Policy Research Unit, SPRU, at the University of Sussex – considered one of the leading thinkers on how radical socio-technical change may affect policy learning, research and innovation. We talked to him about science, technology and the art of innovation policy making.

Photo of Johan Schott
Johan Schot (Photo: P. Koch)

 Per M. Koch, Forskningspolitikk

The world seems to be out of whack, as some would say it, and it seems that science and technology is partly to blame. Climate change has roots in previous waves of technology. Recently we have seen a totalitarian Russian regime using modern ICT technology and quite sophisticated insights into technology and culture to undermine democracy.

Not that many years ago our societies were dominated by optimism and a belief that liberal democracy had won. What happened and what can we do about that?

I would like to start answering your question as an historian.
Science, technology and innovation are core to the capitalist project – to the modern project. In pre-modern times innovation was governed. There were guilds and rules to control science, technology and innovation, because they understood the power of innovation.

They understood, for instance, that innovation could lead to less employment; it could lead to more poverty; it could lead to revolution. So there were many rules in place to govern innovation and to let it move in a certain direction.

Innovation can have a lot of positive effects as well. What happened in the industrialization process was that technology was set free. Technology was now seen as something that could not be touched; it comes like manna from heaven, designed by scientists and engineers. Their space became the laboratory. They also got property rights. Modernization meant freedom for science and technology, which was seen as positive, and would bring many benefits.

And it did. People experienced the wonders of science and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Think about electrical power and light, the train, the car, the telephone, the toilet, vitamins, radio, the pill. We think the Internet is changing the world. But think about the changes people faced in those 200 years.

It used to take two or three years to travel from India to the United Kingdom and then you could do that in a much shorter period. It became possible to fly in one day. Telegraphy made it possible to send messages from the Home Office to India in a couple of hours, which completely changed the practice of diplomacy.

This is just to illustrate that science, technology and innovation have tremendous impacts, which were then politicized.

There were many negative consequences already at the time. And the negative developments led, for instance, to Marxism and revolutions. The response was to build up the state, in order to protect the citizens from negative consequences but also to stimulate innovation (as it leads to economic growth). This was an understanding that slowly developed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

If the history of the twentieth century was the struggle between democracy, fascism and communism, what’s left out is technocracy. Technocracy attaches itself to all three, as a kind of neutral force. The state delegated innovation and the management of its consequences to experts.

Today we need to transform how we innovate. The old technocratic way of innovating has become part of a range of new, deep, problems, which we have to confront in the coming decades.  We can decide not to do that, of course, but that will have consequences.

This is about the distribution of impact. Climate change will have negative impacts, but some regions and companies will profit. If there are too many people bearing the consequences, then it may lead to a revolution. Typically, in history the elite always reacts to the threat of revolution or war.  I think we are in a situation where we can either follow the current system of governing innovation, but then at some point you will need a lot of repression of the people who have dealt with the consequences.

Smoking chimney.
Climate change and other global challenges require experimentation. (Photo: Michal Kodym)

Or you can switch and try to develop a new system of governing the consequences, in which you reduce ex ante some of the consequences. This means innovation in a way which does not produce negative consequences anymore.

And that will be a kind of policy that includes innovation and research policy in your mind – not only as something you fix or put at the end of it. This kind of policy becomes an integrated part of the relevant processes?

Some people would say that you are over-asking of innovation. This is about energy policy, social policy, financial policy. It is not about innovation. Innovation is only a small part of the puzzle. This would be a wrong assumption, though, because innovation is implicated in all policies, big time!

On the other hand, a lot of people would say that innovation is responsible for economic growth. If innovation is such a big thing, why would you weaken it by focusing too much on the negative consequences?

The answer to this is that innovation is crucially implicated in – for instance — climate change. It is crucially implicated in equality. Many of the technologies we produce are so expensive, we exclude a large part of the world population, ex ante, that is: before they are implemented. They can never buy them.  In medicine, it is very clear that many of the drugs are developed for the illnesses of the rich. It is not about weakening the power of innovation but redirecting it.

But at the moment you see that research and innovation policy is often in separate spheres, and within these spheres you still have people who live within the old paradigms or frameworks, like the linear reservoir model of science or the black box of the economists, where the market performs miracles without significant government intervention. Other policy areas, like social affairs or the environment, they are not directly connected in their minds.

We have built up a government and a governing system where we create a niche or a separate comfortable space for science, and we say this is necessary to create all the benefits.

To some extent they need such a space, and we can see that science and innovation has produced many positive benefits. The question is whether the negative consequences have become bigger than the positive ones? Is our current system on dealing with the negative consequences still sufficient? I don’t think so, because the problems have become too big.

You are looking into some way of coordinating this effort on a strategic level. You have talked a lot about the UN Sustainability Goals, for instance, as a way of identifying challenges facing the world, and now you say that in some ways policy makers will have to develop policies in all these areas, which include research and innovation.  That is a hard job, isn’t it?

The first thing to understand is that policy making is part of the problem. It can be part of the solution, too, but if you look into the past on big historical transitions you can see that they were never started by policy makers. The idea that radical change can be policy led is part of the problem. Policy makers have to be modest.

Illustration of sustainable development goals
UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Secondly, we have a current governance system with certain roles for civil society, policy, the market, knowledge. This is about rearranging the entire set of rules and the way we interact. Change is happening in society already, so it is not as if we have to create it. People respond to what they see. There are companies and cities working on solutions, and civil society groups working on solutions. Policy should go with the flow and stimulate some of these alternative developments.

The idea of policy coordination among many types of policies can also be part of the issue. It often leads to many task forces and committees, a lot of talk, but not necessarily action. Let’s design action programs where policy coordination happens in the doing.

You have been working as an adviser to several governments around the world. Do you have any good examples of how this has been done successfully?

Not on a grand scale. All the current governments have a similar problem. They have a separate department or section working on science and technology, a kind of silo in itself.

But I do see many successful starting points. New programs have been started.

For example: In Finland we looked at mobility services as a completely new development. Tekes, the Finish funding agency for innovation, is responding to what is happening on the ground. It is not trying to control. They are becoming a connecting force in an early emerging market. In Sweden Vinnova developed an experiment with funding challenge-led innovation programs. A lot of action is on the local level in cities, where many new zero-emission programs exist. The OECD has begun, yes somewhat reluctantly, to promote systems innovation.

I also think that Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is an area where you have seen a number of interesting experiments in Norway.

So you see experimental behavior in governments, but it is often constrained by the way policy makers are governing themselves. Experiments like these are hard to upscale and hard to develop further, because there are too many restrictions. The big challenge for the future is not so much to find starting point, but to nurture and growth them and ensure they enable a set of sustainability transitions.

Policy makers have to recognize that there are front runners, people who want to do things differently. This is about enabling them – giving them the power to experiment. You have to give them spaces where they can experiment with new solutions. Some of this experimentation will go against existing regulations, so a big question is how to construct more space for experimentations with sustainable solutions.

TIPC logo

Johan Schot is instrumental in the international network called The Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium.

The Consortium’s key objective is to examine and expand on current innovation frames and approaches to assist in solving urgent social and economic issues. The Research Council of Norway, Tekes and Vinnova are some of the founding partners.

In the science arena we have had a kind of implicit social contract where many argue that the state should fund basic research and technology and then leave the scientists and business people alone – and they will deliver. You are taking a different approach. You are talking big strategic research and innovation programmes, but about experimentation, where researchers, policy makers and industry are on board.

Yes, and civil society, and users, and citizens.

In this context, you have taken part in a research project in Norway, with the Research Council, on Responsible Research and Innovation. This is a very different way of looking at science, compared to the old linear approach, where you add something at the end of the research process about ethics and environmental consequences. This is about bringing scientists and innovators into the whole process, isn’t it?

It is about developing a new practice, about how to do social science and natural science. The danger is that Responsible Research and Innovation becomes a tick-box exercise, where scientists have to prove they also deal with ethical issues. There may be some interaction, but that is not the aim of RRI.

Johan Schot at the Research Council of Norway
Johan Schot has been involved in the Research Council of Norway’s work on Responsible Research and Innovation (Photo: P Koch)

Here the aim is to rethink the way we do science. How we interact. Who are the stakeholders? Give them real power, also in terms of design choices and the issues involved. This is a completely new practice.

It is not about filling in some forms, even if you need some form of standardization. But this standardization must allow for a lot of local variation and local experimentation. That is not the same as the strong form of top–down standardization you have found in the past, with too little room for variation.

But wouldn’t this also be a matter of changing the mindset of both scientists and people in industry? In Norwegian industry, for instance, we see a shift where many now think of caring for the environment as something obvious, not only because it is necessary or profitable, but because they believe it is right. But this also affects the kind of scientists who think that their main objective is to follow their curiosity wherever their passions drive them, not primarily out of concern for the environment or society at large.

This is more than a matter of “mindsets”. I think people are driven by routines. Routines come out as preferences – they are often unconscious, implicit and tacit, that people think are the best ways of moving forward. They are collective, and not individual. And they are embedded in the skill set, in infrastructures, in products, in regulations and culture.

These elements form together a set of socio-technical system of mobility, energy, food, healthcare delivery, for example, that constitutes the economy and society.

The routines can only change through learning, through practices, and these practices then need to lead to new skill sets, new infrastructures, new products. Then, if you behave differently as an individual, there will be a welcoming environment for it.
It is like driving on the highway. If I am driving on the German highway, a wide-open road where a car can easily drive at the speed of 250 kilometers an hour, and they ask me to drive at 100k, that is very difficult. Because the whole system invites me to push the power. The whole system is still inviting the wrong behavior, just educating people to drive 100 will not do. We need to have socio-technical systems in place which invite that behavior.

That brings me over to the EU, where you have three different frameworks living side by side. Basic science, innovation and a reorientation towards grand challenges. Now there is a new proposal on the table regarding the next framework program for research and innovation. Do you feel that the European Commission and that system has managed to follow up on some of the challenges we are discussing here?

Carlos Moedas,
Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner of Research, Science and Innovation (photo: EC Audovisual Services)

There is a clear appreciation of the challenges, and also in the Commission, that things have to be done differently. But they are struggling as well with how to implement it inside the Commission, because you have all the different DGs (Directorates Genera)], and all the rules do not allow them to take a real experimental approach, because they have to put in a lot of checks and balances, and the processes are often stifled by bureaucracy.

This is partly an issue of trust, lack of policy space for experimentation, too much focus on short term delivery, and failure is not accepted.

I think governments should work towards the climate with experimental behavior where failure is accepted. This should be communicated very clearly with the public, because there is low trust in government. Failures may add to it, so this is a risky business for governments to engage in.

The problem with the challenge driven approach adopted also by the EU is that people put up the challenges and then do business as usual. How to move from challenge to radical change is not so clear.

I have some friends in Britain who voted for leaving the Union. One of their arguments for doing so was that “in Brussels there are only bureaucrats, and they are not doing anything for us at all.” I sensed some kind of complete alienation from what is going on there, and a lack of trust in the Commission’s ability to do anything about science and innovation, because these people were very into that. Do you see Brexit as a sign of growing mistrust?

Certainly. I have written a book about the history of the EU and the integration process. It is very clear that the EU partly came out of a technocratic project which started in the nineteenth century. Experts developed a new way of doing international relations which delegated a range of issues to experts. This way of working is embedded in the EU. Many  have been struggling with democratizing the EU.

Some of the criticism against the EU is thus justified. We need a deep reform of the EU. However, many politicians who have been blaming the EU are playing the easy card. They have never built up a real culture around the necessity of Europeanization, of opening up. You are either for or against the EU, and a sensible discussion about various ways of taking the project forward is difficult. Brexit is a good example of this.

Brexit is the result of more inequality, social divisions, and also severe environmental issues like climate change, which have never been debated with the people, so why should they care and respond to rules perceived as coming from the EU? There is an elite culture in Britain, and a big dichotomy between them and the people left behind. The people left behind now blame the elite and Europe – partly justified.

Brexit tells us that we need a discussion and deep reform – this includes a need to think through the position of Europe in the world in relation to migration, inequality and so on. We need to talk about the causes of Brexit, not only about the consequences. The causes of Brexit are also found in France, in Norway, so there should be a shared debate about what led to Brexit. That is not happening. That is one reason why Brexit is sad, because it takes away all the energy from all the important issues, not only in the UK, but also in Europe.


Book reference: Kaiser and Johan Schot, Writing the Rules for Europe. Experts, Cartels and International Organizations Palgrave McMillan, 2014

For more about Johan Schot’s work, visit and, and follow Schot on twitter: @Johan_Schot

A shorter Norwegian language version of this interview will be published in the forthcoming print edition of Forskningspolitikk.