Advisory report: A more forceful choice for key technologies
Key technologies deliver ground-breaking innovations which help progress on all fronts. They lead to better medical care, cleaner transport and more efficient and cleaner production. Key technologies thus have a major and unassailable impact on science, society and the economy. However, their development also raises questions and concerns, for example in relation to safety and privacy.
The global nature of the development of key technologies and the speed with which that development takes place means these are questions that cannot be resolved within the confines of national borders. Although the Netherlands is currently in a good position in relation to these technologies, other countries have been investing in them for longer, investing more and in a more targeted way. It is only recently that the Netherlands has included key technologies in its innovation policy; the public resources for these technologies are limited. If we leave the development and application of these technologies to other countries, we will become dependent on choices made elsewhere which have a major impact on our society and economy.
In this report the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI) addresses the question of what approach is needed to make the most of the opportunities offered by key technologies whilst controlling the potential negative effects.
Pursue an active policy: develop an integrated approach, with considered choices and more resources
An integrated approach is needed to ensure that - in collaboration with international partners - the development, application and dissemination of key technologies in the Netherlands is channelled in the right direction. Such an integrated approach is the only way that the Netherlands can maintain the leading role it holds at present.
An overarching approach which goes beyond individual ministries will pool the strengths of business, research institutes, civil-society organisations and public authorities to provide a boost for key technologies. Adopting such an approach will enable the government to bring together technological developments, economic opportunities, societal challenges and public values. Investing in technology alone is not enough; successful application of the technologies also requires actions in other policy domains, for example education, labour market and safety. Integrated judgements on all aspects relating to the development and application of key technologies are currently not being made. There is a lack of interdepartmental coordination. The emphasis is on economic opportunities and solutions to societal problems, with the result that values, dilemmas and concerns in society currently receive too little attention.
To maintain its place on the global high-tech stage, the Dutch government needs to instil a clearer direction in the investments in and development of key technologies. The government is currently unable to steer the development of key technologies adequately; it has virtually no ability to bring together resources and initiatives to create greater striking power, because most of the funding is channelled through generic and fiscal instruments. The government facilitates, while knowledge and research institutes and businesses make choices. This leads to dilution and fragmentation. An integrated approach opens the way for targeted and properly thought-through choices. To achieve this, the government needs to set up a directional assessment framework so that it is clear for all concerned which strategic considerations are important for the Netherlands: which are the societal challenges that require breakthroughs in key technologies? Which public values need to be incorporated from the start? Which strengths does the Netherlands wish to develop and exploit? In which niches does the Netherlands wish to lead or follow? In which technologies does the Netherlands want to be independent? What are the opportunities for joining forces with other national, regional and international initiatives and alliances?
Choosing makes focus and critical mass attainable, enabling the Netherlands to influence developments. Making choices is essential, but it is not possible to choose between key technologies at the general level of, say, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology or photonics – all key technologies in which the Netherlands has a leading position and which offer ample opportunities. Making choices is however possible at a number of deeper levels: between specific technologies, components, potential applications and the stronger and less strong aspects of innovation ecosystems.
The government creates the directional framework and calls on stakeholders to develop national programmes to boost the development of key technologies. The government does not itself choose between these programmes, but asks independent experts to make a selection with the aid of the directional framework. This approach will simplify the current strategy for key technologies and ensure that choices are properly thought through and considered and less dependent on compromise, vested interests and powerful lobbyists.
An integrated approach will only deliver results if the Dutch government invests considerably more in key technologies than it does at present. AWTI urgently recommends investing an additional sum of between 0.5 and 1 billion euros per year. This will bring the Netherlands more into step with other countries which invest a minimum of 0.1% of GDP specifically in key technologies. This money is needed because the challenge is too great for businesses, research institutes and private financiers to address on their own. Higher government investments will also make it easier to sign up to major European research and innovation projects, to attract and retain top talent and to open the way to breakthroughs in research and development.
AWTI makes three recommendations to government for organising and embedding an integrated approach with considered choices and more resources.
Recommendation 1: Build a portfolio of national key technology programmes
Making optimum use of the opportunities offered by key technologies for society and the economy whilst at the same time remaining in control of the potential negative effects requires properly considered choices. Those choices must weigh all aspects relating to key technologies. To be able to make choices based on quality and potential - and ignoring vested interests – AWTI advises the government to stimulate national key technology programmes. Ask research institutes, businesses and civil-society organisations what is needed in specific fields of technology to maintain and strengthen the Netherlands’ international position. These stakeholders will formulate national key technology programmes to address this question. They are in the best position to know what is needed, and they can tap into international alliances and which regional initiatives and clusters they can bring into the process.
National key technology programmes bring together research and development across the entire knowledge and innovation chain focusing on a specific technology or combination of technologies. They combine strengths and bring together national and regional initiatives. The programmes are ambitious and have clear objectives to achieve breakthroughs. They tap into international alliances and also develop activities around demonstrations, testing and upscaling. They are interdisciplinary and take into account public values in the development of key technologies.
Government sets the directional framework incorporating the strategic judgements regarding technologies that are important for the Netherlands. The government then organises a selection process based on this framework to decide which national programmes will receive additional support. The government also maintains the health of the knowledge base, because this is the only way to ensure that new technologies can be developed whilst maintaining the knowledge absorption capacity.
Recommendation 2: Set up a Key Technologies Taskforce and a DG Consultation Forum
AWTI recommends that the government set up a Key Technologies Taskforce to manage the portfolio of national key technology programmes. This Taskforce would invite coalitions to put forward proposals for programmes, from which it will then make a choice. The Taskforce will be assisted in this by independent assessment committees which assess the proposals on the basis of the assessment framework and derived indicators and weighting factors. The Council advises that the Taskforce be placed organisationally within the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).
Organising and embedding the integrated approach requires interdepartmental coordination and liaison. AWTI recommends that this takes place in a special consultative forum between the Directorates-General of the most relevant ministries (DG Consultation Forum). Key technologies are a shared responsibility; the DG Consultation Forum must provide a stimulus based on shared interests, goals and resources. The DG Consultation Forum constructs the assessment framework on behalf of the government.
Recommendation 3: Invest extra, specific resources
Ambitious plans have been developed, but the public resources available to carry them out are insufficient. Current plans and initiatives mainly bring together existing efforts and funds; they do not offer anything extra. The Council believes that, in combination with an integrated approach, between 0.5 and 1 billion euros extra per year is needed to fund national programmes for key technologies. This funding must not come at the expense of investments in the broad knowledge base.