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What can Europe learn from US science policy?

There were high expectations for the effect of the COMPETES Acts on the US research and innovation landscape. But were these expectations met and what


Jeff Furman

Associate Professor of Strategy & Innovation at Boston University and a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER),

Tommy Dolan

Vice President, PharmaTherapeutics Pharmaceutical Sciences, Pfizer,


See below for video recording and materials.

The event offered an overview of science policy from US and EU perspectives.

Historically, the US has been seen as a model for Europe, not only for its scientific achievements but also for its funding mechanisms. Greater resources are allocated to research, which seems to produce benefits for society and profitable opportunities for the private sector. Recent numbers show how levels of public spending in innovation and research remain consistently higher in the US than in Europe.

The much-praised America COMPETES Acts aimed to significantly increase federal investment in research and innovation. But is has failed to meet initial expectations. It emerges that a good proportion of the funding did not materialise and several projects therefore remained unrealised.

One should be careful when comparing EU and US science policy as they are very different in nature. A good proportion of US spending in research, for example, is destined to the defense sector. This could never happen in EU because of difficulties in political coordination and historical reasons related to the Second World War. Moreover, philanthropy plays a fundamental role in the US, giving funding opportunities to new sectors. In Europe this source is almost negligible.

Most importantly, the biggest difference is in the nature of the decision making process through which funds are allocated. In the EU this is more complex and fragmented. It entails interaction between national and central levels of governments, likely to have divergent interests and timescales. The latter issue constitutes a hurdle also in terms of future budget planning.

The discussion moved on to the evaluation of the impact of science policy. This is important and seems to be missing in the EU context, although it is beginning to emerge. Evidence based policy would provide a good incentive for governments and politicians to place research and innovation in their agenda, as well as helping them to understand why this should be coordinated at the central EU level. However, the long timeframes of research impact, and the high-risk nature of both basic science and product development make meaningful short-term impact assessment difficult. It is interesting to remark that this rigorous approach to impact evaluation is also weak in the US context, which might explain some of the above-mentioned failures in the implementation of the COMPETES Acts.

Finally, from a private sector perspective, partnerships and collaborations between private and public sector are vital. They seem to be the best way to finance basic knowledge research, which can incrementally lead to inventions. One of the main challenges faced by the private sector is the difficult relationship with regulators due to a divergence in interests: while authorities and public institutions are supposed to protect society’s wellbeing, the industry is interested in obtaining commercially profitable gains from inventions.

Overall, a global approach towards research and innovation funding decisions is needed: on one hand, for the important spillovers that research can produce in a globalised context and, on the other hand, for the enormous benefits that can derive from sharing individual countries’ findings and data.

Event summary by Elena Vaccarino, Research Assistant


Event Materials

Presentation | Jeff Furman

The European Union’s growing innovation divide | Reinhilde Veugelers