The Conversation Spain
The capital importance of the lowercase i of R + D + i
Shutterstock / amasterphotographerWith the pandemic, things have gained importance that, even well known, we had been neglecting for centuries. Among others, we have missed innovation, that tiny i of R + D + i. Especially in the technological and biomedical areas. But with the expectations of recovery, innovation gains relevance in all areas. And we know that in Spain that lowercase i is too tiny, at least by comparison with the countries with which we should compare ourselves. Science-based competitiveness At Schumpeter we know that innovation is crucial in all societies. That increased productivity hinges on innovation, and that there is no better way to boost growth and generate well-being. Plainly, this means that the production model in Spain must be changed, today supported – if this term were appropriate at the moment – by numerous small and very small companies, not very innovative in relation to the EU average and with little development of sectors with the highest technological content. The lever for that change can only come from a boost to innovative industry in the context of a knowledge-based economy. In other words, of a determined promotion of competitiveness based on science. Using the funds that could come from the EU to bring about this necessary transformation is a debate with dimensions in space and time. In space, you have to decide what to invest in and in whom to invest (in which sectors? In which companies?). Over time, these investments cannot be delayed as they have to help minimize the effects of the crisis and ensure a rapid and sustained recovery. If the objective is innovation, the fundamental agent is the small innovative company. The Government of Spain wants to streamline administrative procedures to speed up the procedures for accessing European funds. It can and should do so, although the Royal Decree for the modernization of the Administration and the execution of the Recovery Plan may not be enough. Controls to guarantee the correct use of public resources must exist – even be reinforced – but there are procedures that do not guarantee anything except inefficiency. On the other hand, the rush to get European funds out can have a perverse effect, as the seemingly simpler – and therefore more tempting – formulas may not be the most desirable. Using large corporations to convey new financial resources simplifies administrative work and speeds up management. Large corporations have easier access to public administrations, are able to quickly prepare projects (if they do not have them already prepared) and can guarantee co-financing. But innovation is born above all in small technology companies that, in the guarantee schemes of an apparent equality of opportunities in public tenders, start with a great disadvantage. Its administrative capacities are noticeably inferior. They can rarely co-finance and often do not even access the required collateral. And this time when innovation should take precedence, this is a bad starting point. It is possible to demand, as is frequently done in competitions, the presence of SMEs in the environment of the tractor companies. But more than its innovative influence, it seems that only the justification of its mere presence counts. That the Administration directly addresses large companies in these situations is not open to criticism (it is even desirable). But if it is not paying attention to the small ones that, in short, are the germ of a highly innovative business fabric. If the objective is innovation and the fundamental agent is the small company (obviously, the small company that aspires not to be always small), the objective must condition the procedure and not the other way around. It should not be subordinated to what is easier for the Administration. Expand the channels between the state and innovators It is not easy to change the modus operandi. There is a lack of agility to establish an institutional architecture that responds to the needs of the moment. The bottlenecks of inter-crisis periods turn into death traps when the situation is critical. In Spain, the channels of the administrations with the “outside” world are very narrow and information hardly flows through them. The new has enormous difficulties to travel through these channels. The narrowness of these channels is formally justified by the guarantees in the procedures. These guarantees are necessary to reduce arbitrariness and allow fair competition between companies. But beyond the formal justification, there is an underlying distrust of public administrations towards the novelty, their reluctance to risk (innovation always has it) and an obsession with (formal) control, which implies the maintenance of the monopoly of the general interest . Other countries show more reflexes to give structural responses to new challenges. It is not surprising that they are the most innovative and in which the generation and transfer of knowledge is a priority strategy. Without going any further, the United Kingdom has created the Office for Life Sciences, an intermediate structure between the business and investment world and health institutions to promote effective investment in this area, create jobs, benefit the health sector and increase exports technological. Following in many respects in the wake of the North American Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the United Kingdom has also created the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), with the aim of financing high-risk and potentially high-reward initiatives. But its objective is not exclusively to supply financial resources. They cooperate with the public sector to streamline administrative processes and eliminate barriers (which attracts national and international investors), share information and connect fluently with the private sector. It is not surprising (although there is criticism) that this Agency has been “forgiven” for complying with much of the UK public procurement rules. A question of connectivity Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary answers. But organizationally we are trying to respond with what is put. And, as in the Hans Christian Andersen story, it is not much. Already in ordinary situations, especially in R&D, few resources have been available, but above all a lot of delay and little execution. We lack agility and we have plenty of precautions to create these ad hoc structures for complex tasks, beyond the ability to set up independent and professional task forces to deal with unexpected situations. In this context, the draft of the preliminary draft of the Law on Science, Technology and Innovation seems more concerned with the official research structures (R&D) dependent on the central State (which undoubtedly require this concern), than with enthusiastically encouraging the i lower case. It is not just a management and oversight problem. It is a matter of agility, connectivity, inclusiveness and multiple coordination with the business sector, universities, entrepreneurs and private investors. Also of cooperation and coordination within the Administration itself, whose different departments, isolated from each other, barely interact. The Economist foresees a global technological “boom” in life sciences, an area in which Spanish R&D has a respectable level. But we are little prepared to take advantage of the changes that are thrown at us. Neither are we for the big crises, and here, and in view of the antecedents, skepticism is inevitable. But skepticism must not translate into indolence. It is not so much about lowering controls as about creating a renewed, more agile, more open and participatory institutional architecture. These are times that, whether we like it or not, for better or for worse, will decide our position in the post-pandemic world. Times for effort and innovation. Also organizational innovation. Also in the Administration, including its scientific structures, its universities and the National Health System itself. This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original. Salvador Peiró has received funding from national public competitive grants (in general, research or innovation actions -projects, networks, HR, platforms- from the Strategic Action in Health of the National R + D + i Plan) and by institutional agreements with firms pharmaceutical and technological. Funders have never played any role in study design, data acquisition, analysis, or interpretation. They have also not had access to the data sources and never influenced the publication decision. He is also a patron of the Health Services Research Institute Foundation and a member of the Health Economics Association (AES), of the Spanish Epidemiology Society (SEE), of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration (SESPAS) and the Spanish Society for Healthcare Quality (SECA). Professor at the National School of Health. He was a founding partner and chairman of the Board of Directors of CrossRoadBiotech Inversiones Biotecnológicas (CRB Inverbio SGEIC SA), an independent venture capital manager that invests in the initial phases of innovative companies in the life sciences field. Member of the Association of Health Economics and the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration. President of the mVision Foundation, a multidisciplinary ecosystem around biomedical innovation.