A peek into how European innovation is progressing – and being monitored


A Q&A with innovation and technology policy expert Hugo Hollanders

Few are better suited to discuss innovation policy at the pan-European level than Hugo Hollanders, Senior Researcher at UNU-MERIT and acting unit head of its Economics of Innovation and Technology Unit. For almost 25 years, Hollanders has been working with the European Commission (EC) on projects and reports as well as serving generally as a go-to expert on technology and innovation developments across the European Union’s 27 countries and beyond.

Among his broad portfolio of work projects is an annual report called the European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS), which ranks countries based on their level of innovation over the past year. Ahead of the 2023 edition releasing this June, and in time for Europe Day (9 May), Hollanders shares a few words about his experience as a policy-influencing researcher and what to expect from this year’s Scoreboard.

[This interview has been edited for content and clarity.]

In your own words, how do you define innovation?

Innovation is not about invention. Invention is if you come up with something new – it could be a new idea, it could be a prototype. An innovation should also be new, or what I call significantly improved, but it should additionally have a commercial value. You should be able to sell it, bring it to the market. There should be customers for that innovative product or service. This means that innovation is also linked to entrepreneurship, in order to commercialize the innovation. So in my view, innovation and entrepreneurship are linked.

How have you seen the European Commission change or enhance their research uptake over time?

What I’ve noticed is that there is more expertise in-house. Twenty years ago, they relied more on external contractors [for reports and summaries], which the Commission would then read and try to use the results. Now they are also collaborating and much more involved in the process.

When I got involved in the Innovation Scoreboard project in 2001, it was like we were almost free to do whatever we wanted to do. It was a report prepared for the Commission but didn’t have its logo.

Over time, because the visibility of the report improved, it became more politically relevant to European policymakers. Now it has the EC logo. And like last year, also this year we have at least six people at the Commission involved, giving comments and direction and connection to data. Last year, I think they looked at every single word, just to make sure that the report was in line with their expectations. So that involvement has become much more intense and much more direct. And in my opinion, it has really improved the work that we are doing and the impact of the work.

How has the impact of this report improved?

When we started work on monitoring the innovation performance of member states, innovation was there, but not very high on the policy agenda. But when we showed which countries were doing well and which countries were not, then innovation as a topic moved higher [on the policy agenda].

We also noticed that some countries were not very happy with the results and decided to actually devise policies trying to improve those areas where they were not doing well compared to other European countries. So, we see references to the report in national policy documents, referencing strengths and weaknesses as compared to other countries. We also see it cited by other scientists and researchers.

How have you seen the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) come into play?

The SDGs have become much more important. They started more outside of the EC as a UN initiative, but now the Commission has also been taking them up. We finished a project last year where we were trying to come up with a toolbox that the Commission could use if they want to monitor the contribution of research and innovation to progress on the SDGs, both at the level of the EU and also at the level of individual member states.

The idea was also to identify those research and innovation areas that would be more relevant for progress on the Goals. If you can identify them, you can also see, for example, where more policy initiatives would be needed, or where, if the research is being done in the private sector, companies should be motivated or subsidized to do more research.

The difficulty is the level of detail needed to identify all this, but we have some ideas. For example, we see that security and artificial intelligence technologies should become less dependent on non-European countries, such as China and the U.S. And so these are areas where the Commission is taking a higher interest and where research funding is increasing.

Could you speak a bit about the upcoming Innovation Scoreboard and your goals for it?

As I mentioned, the Scoreboard monitors the research and innovation performance of European countries – not only member states, but also in what we call neighboring countries, which includes the Western Balkans, Ukraine and a few other countries. We also have comparisons with global competitors – the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and a few others.

The update tries to use the most recent statistical data, but also tries to identify changes in past trends. Is there innovation divide? Are the least-innovative countries improving faster than the most-innovative countries? Are there any changes in Europe’s strengths and weaknesses? And how are we comparing with our major international competitors?

I can’t share too much, but I can say that some European countries are doing much better than they were doing last year, and also that Europe is not progressing as well as our international competitors.

How do you interpret the results on a country, EU and global scale?

National policymakers don’t always understand that if their country lost a rank position, maybe it’s not doing worse than last year but that another country just did better. That’s not bad from a perspective of Europe – it really doesn’t matter. If innovations originate in one member state, they will still diffuse to other member states. Also, innovations and technologies don’t stop at the borders of countries or of Europe. They flow to countries outside, and we also benefit from new technologies flowing to us from other continents.

There are also many things that we are not able to measure, such as global value chains, which aren’t really covered in the report because we don’t have proper statistical data. For example, the role of multinational companies and their research activities in one country will be relegated to that particular country, but their production facilities in other countries are also benefitting from these research and innovation activities. So we’re trying to monitor, but there are still lots of imperfections. We would like to do better, but we can also only work with the data that are available.

What advice would you have for young researchers that want to work with the EC?

I would advise getting involved in projects for the EC, or if they’re really interested, to get a traineeship at the EC, because that’s the best possible start. Get a bit of a taste of what it would be like to work for or with the Commission – I think this is really, really important. Or, try to get involved with other external projects, such as for the UN, World Bank or national governments.

What I can say about the EC is most people there really try to do their best, to collaborate, to raise the quality of the product of the reports that we are drafting. And what I really like is that we as researchers are having a bit of an impact, and what we do is actually being used in making new policy. So I think as a student, at some point, you also have to make a choice between going for a more academic career or one in policy.