Jan Wessels (VDI/VDE-IT, Germany)
Please tell us something about you.
I am a political scientist and work at VDI/VDE-IT (Berlin, Germany) for almost 20 years in the area of innovation and technology policies. Since 2018, I am head of the section on “Innovation Policy, Evaluation & Monitoring”.
The main focus of my work lies in the analysis of European and national innovation systems and policies as well as in the impact assessment and evaluation of public innovation and technology programmes in Germany and abroad.
From 2010 to 2013, I worked at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with a focus on innovation strategies, being responsible for the implementation of the German High-Tech-Strategy and for international aspects of innovation policies.
Since 2013, I am coordinating a strategic advisory and support project for Directorate-General 1 - Strategies and Policy Issues of BMBF. The management of this “Strategy, Innovation Policy, Strategic Foresight And Foundational Data And Analysis for Education And Research” project involves providing Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with conceptual support for the implementation of the government’s strategy for research and innovation policy. Its scope includes funding for projects associated with the analysis of innovation and technology and for foresight processes. Since 2008, I am also co-speaker of the working group on evaluation in the area of research, technology and innovation policies of DeGEval, the German and Austrian Evaluation Society.
VDI/VDE Innovation + Technology GmbH is one of the main German funding agencies and a service provider for issues related to innovation and technology. We support and provide advice to research programmes of the German federal government, the German state governments, the EU as well as organise branch/contact offices for research and business.
What are you currently working on?
One of the most interesting processes I am currently involved is dedicated to the restructuring and professionalization of STI evaluation practices in Germany. Several main players are establishing new structures, processes and competences within their organizations to improve the quality of evaluation in this policy field.
The Ministries of Research and Economy are both developing new guidelines and practices and will challenge the evaluation practice in Germany. Main dimensions are the standardisation of evaluation approaches for quality reasons, internal guidelines for good evaluation and new comparative and horizontal approaches in impact assessment.
We are supporting the BMBF in this process and help them with our threefold perspective: 1) we act as evaluators of many funding schemes, 2) are a funding agency ourselves and 3) have a policy maker perspective. The triangle of being an evaluator, a policy-maker and an intermediary organization is key for developing a new evaluation culture.
As a policy advisor, what are the biggest challenges you've faced and the obstacles you've overcome?
From talking to policy-makers, what are the most pressing STI policy issues?
For the last 14 years, the German government and private stakeholders invested continuously more money into innovation and reached the 3% R&D target of the EU. This growth may come to an end in the next years, although the German government raised the target to 3.5%.
Bringing efficiency into the German STI System will be more needed than ever. The German innovation system is, compared to other countries, already quite efficient, however budget constraints may require further efforts. Amongst others, improving evaluation and impact assessments of R&D programmes and streamlining the broad set of existing innovation funding instruments could be particularly useful. Another pathway is depending on the effects of digitalization. It is not yet clear whether digitalization can improve R&D efficiency.
In your opinion, how can STI policy become more effective?
From my point of view, a main precondition for designing and developing a more effective STI policy is having hard evidence on what worked and what not (and especially why not). We need the right tools for impact assessment and evaluation to provide those insights.
Unfortunately, the actual practice of evaluating innovation policy is not yet using all its potential, often, evaluations are focused on single interventions, single funding schemes or single institutions, for instance.
A systemic, horizontal approach would allow seeing the comparative advantages of specific interventions, the interaction of several schemes and measures and the pathways companies and researches follow through the system. We need new tools and approaches for this kind of evaluations, and we need more standardized instruments to compare outcomes of individual evaluations.
A systemic perspective is also needed for the implementation of STI policy. The ongoing discussion on “open innovation” -oriented innovation policy is reflecting this need. Innovation processes are more complex and interactive, including a broad variety of different stakeholders and users.
The challenge is to involve as much stakeholders as possible, but keep the process as straight and efficient as needed. We still struggle with participatory approaches, most of them playing a pure symbolic role and not giving real decision making power to new stakeholder groups.
What have been the most influential books, research papers, or other resources?
We are facing a new wave on mission-oriented policies in Germany and Europe. The Commission is working on such a policy for Horizon Europe, and the German High-tech-Strategy 2025 is continuing to follow this path with 10 new “missions”.
In my opinion, this development has some of its roots in the book “Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato, published in 2011. The book is often cited for his strong argumentation on public spending. The iPhone example has been used widely in presentations and articles to show that fundamental research is the true basis of so many commercially successful innovations.
Lesser known, though giving similarly interesting perspectives, is the book “The Politics of Innovation – Why some countries are better than others at science and Technology” (2016) by Mark Zachary Taylor. It tries to answer the question why – giving the well-known evidences that innovation policies are good for national economies – not all nations use this opportunity in the same way. Why some nations are more active and more successful than others?
The book answers this question manly by looking at fundamental political structures and cleavages of national political systems. Every political decision will produce winners and losers, and so will innovation policy decision making. The author argues that it depends on the influence of stakeholders whether some decisions are taken or not. If you take the German car industry, for example, his argumentation seems somehow likely.