Impact Assessment of Innovation Policy

C. Excellence and its contributions to impact

The distribution of value in research outcomes measured by publications is highly skewed, i.e. very few publications have high impact. Similarly only a small share of patents are widely cited and of large commercial value. It is, therefore, not surprising that leading scientists and research institutions have played a dominant role in science-industry collaborations with highest impacts on innovation (Jensen et al., 2003, Di Gregorio and Shane, 2003; Chapple et al., 2005). Star scientists were critical for the creation of start-ups in the fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology in the United States (Zucker and Darby, 1998). Thus, promoting excellence in research seems critical for policy if it is to have lasting impacts.

However, there are downsides to adopting too strong a focus on performance excellence in the funding different institutions receive. If only few institutions receive the bulk of funding and, consequently, concentrate capacities, then the emergence of other leaders may be constrained. In addition, if such concentration results in a focus on certain fields, the capacities for research to respond to new demands, as technological breakthrough across the globe change priorities for industry, is weakened.  Importantly, to the extent that regional proximity continues to matter effective collaboration with industry, concentration in a few sources may weaken opportunities for regional development. Moreover, to the extent that human capital formation continues to require physical campuses, the supply of adequately skilled human capital could also be affected. 

A major challenge for policy with regards to excellence arises, however, with regards to adequate incentive schemes. One factor is risk: Early stage research is inherently risky. Failure is part of the process by which research is conducted. Thus, if success becomes a core determinant for future funding, then this may lower research undertaken. Another factor regards providing opportunities for researchers outside of leading institutions to compete for funding. Young researchers will not have the same track record as their senior colleagues, but should not on those grounds be excluded from possible funding opportunities. The same applies to institutions.