Innovation and the Role of the Public Sector

“Innovation and the Role of the Public Sector” was the theme of the international symposium held on 1st March, that celebrated the 70th anniversary of the branch library system of Japan’s National Diet Library. It invited Profs. Fred Block (UC Davis), Ulrike Felt (Univ. of Vienna), and Dairus Ornston (Univ. of Toronto) as guest speakers, and Prof. Noriyuki Yanagawa (Univ. of Tokyo) as a commentator, with Prof. Yuko Fujigaki (Univ. of Tokyo) serving as chair. If we take the conventional definition of “innovation,” that is, new products and processes, it is often assumed that the private-sector organizations play the primary role in it. Thinking about the role of the public sector therefore can be understood as a call for its re-definition.

Focusing on the experience in the US, Prof. Block argued that the central locus of innovation has shifted from private institutions to public-sector laboratories and federally funded research centers, which mostly are located on university campuses. To use his words, these places can be seen as “collaborative public spaces,” which allow government-funded researchers to work side by side with corporate scientists and engineers, and offer them access to other kinds of expertise, which are otherwise difficult to utilize in their work. According to him, the example of successful creation of such a space is the US National Science Foundation’s industry-university collaborative research centers scheme, started back in the 1970s, which enables leading scientists to recruit dues-paying industry members, and this model has been copied across other federal agencies in the country. Its success, he argued, reflect changes in science, changes in business, and changes in the government.

How to adapt to such drastic and multiple changes was also the topic of the talk by Prof. Ornston. He argued that Nordic countries have reinvented themselves repeatedly over the decades, and that that was possible because of what he calls “cohesive, encompassing networks.” The networks facilitate changes in the countries by minimizing the risks associated with undergoing them and making sure no actor would be left behind. He emphasized, however, that such a mechanism only works in a small country like them, and that if it is to be adopted in large countries such as the US, scaling it down to a regional level might be necessary.

Whether by the government or by the network of multiple stakeholders, these two talks stressed the need for coordination in innovation and the space for actors involved to interact with each other. And for that reason, to me, the talk by Prof. Felt stood out particularly. She urged us to think how we can make sure societal values are reflected in innovation, rather than simply calling for more innovation. In the current European research framework program of Horizon 2020, the concept of “Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI),” together with the slogan of “Science with and for Society”, invites an inclusive approach to research and innovation in order to address the grand challenges in our society. This idea of inclusiveness leads to the questions about values – what kinds of science and innovation should be fostered?, by whom?, through what process?, who benefits from it?, and eventually, what kind of society we want to live in? And questions like these need be asked throughout the process of research and innovation. Therefore, we have to think how these value questions can be reflected in creating the interactive space and integrated into the coordination work for making innovation. Different approaches to it can and should be justified and considered rational in different countries with different socio-cultural backgrounds. In her talk, Prof. Felt used the term “participatory justice” to stress this point (this resonates also with what Sheila Jasanoff calls “civic epistemology”).

Having studied the context of orphan drugs in the US and Europe recently, I particularly support the idea that bringing historical contingencies and cultural complexities of such approaches back into the picture is critical if we are not only to accommodate but also to appreciate their differences (see my work on the history of orphan drug policies). If I am to add anything to Prof. Felt’s talk, however, the concept of RRI too needs be considered as a way of coordination for innovation. That is, it needs be unpacked, just as my ongoing project aims to do so with the concept of ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI). This work of unpacking should then be followed by the effort to re-construct it reflecting local cultures.

By elaborating on what counts as “public” in Japan, Prof. Fujigaki suggested a potential direction for this – she argued “public” tends to be narrowly defined as something to do with the government in our country. Prof. Yanagawa also pointed out that Japanese citizens might feel uneasy where no one is to make authoritative decisions on their behalf and for their interest. There may be a long way ahead of us before articulating well what kind of governance would be considered rational and justified in our country but asking questions like where we find a public space and how it has been organized would probably help us to think about what kind of institutional arrangement would make research and innovation responsible in our country.


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