5 key findings from the new Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook

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Today, we released the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021, our review of the most important trends in science, technology and innovation (STI) policy across OECD countries and several major partner economies.

This year’s Outlook couldn’t come at a more crucial time, as countries across the world continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic crisis it has triggered. Research and innovation systems have played a key role in these efforts, providing a better understanding of the virus and its transmission, and fuelling the rapid development of candidate vaccines. But the crisis has also stretched these systems to their limits, revealing gaps that need to be filled in order to address future global challenges. Indeed, while COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst accelerating international STI collaboration, open-access research and the use of digital tools, among other trends, it is also a wake-up call that underscores the need to rethink and reorient STI policies towards the goals of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency.   

Below are five key findings from the new STI Outlook. See our full report for more.

The STI system response to COVID-19 has been decisive, rapid and significant – across both public and private sectors.

Since the outbreak of the virus, governments have acted quickly to fund COVID-19-related research and innovation at scale. In the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies worldwide spent around USD 5 billion on emergency funding for COVID-19 research and development (R&D). That includes about USD 300 million in Asia-Pacific (excluding the People’s Republic of China), over USD 850 million in Europe and over USD 3.5 billion in North America. Philanthropic institutions, meanwhile, contributed at least USD 550 million to COVID-19 research during this period, on top of their commitments to major international cooperative initiatives.

At the same time, the pandemic has triggered an unprecedented mobilisation of research and innovation systems across the globe. Around 75 000 scientific publications on COVID-19 were published between January and November 2020, of which more than 75% were open access (compared to less than 50% in other biomedical fields). The United States accounts for the largest share of COVID-19 publications, followed by China and the United Kingdom.

  • International collaboration has been key to the research and innovation response to COVID-19.

The science and innovation response to COVID-19 has been a mix of national and international efforts. By August 2020, about USD 2 billion from both public and private sources had been pledged for international research efforts, largely targeted towards developing COVID-19 vaccines.  About a quarter of all COVID-19-related  publications from China and the US were co-authored with researchers based in another country, underscoring their strong engagement in international collaboration. The UK, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and India have also been highly engaged in international research collaborations on COVID-19.

  • Responses to the crisis have drawn upon the innovative potential of businesses…

The private sector has delivered a wide range of innovative solutions to help cope with the health emergency, and emerge from it as robustly as possible, with many firms newly deploying or expanding their use of digital technologies to maintain operations. The biopharmaceutical industry, often in partnership with academia, has played a particularly crucial role, launching hundreds of clinical trials targeting COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

  • … but business and research innovation have been affected unevenly.

On an aggregate basis, business investments in research and innovation are pro-cyclical, and thus prone to contracting in times of crisis. But the COVID-19 crisis may be different, as some of the companies that spend most on R&D appear to be expanding their R&D activities during the crisis. Businesses in the digital and pharmaceutical sectors have thrived during the crisis, raising their R&D investments, while major companies in automotive, aerospace and defence have reduced their R&D spending.

Looking forward, STI policies should be redesigned to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency.

For many governments, the pandemic is a stark reminder of the need to transition to more sustainable, equitable and resilient societies, as reflected in their recovery packages, which include expenditures on R&D. To address global challenges, policy needs to be able to guide innovation efforts to where they are most needed. OECD countries and partner economies have increasingly relied on R&D tax incentives to spur innovation, with tax support representing around 56% of total government support across OECD countries in 2018, compared to 36% in 2006. Yet while such measures are effective in incentivising business innovation, they are indirect and untargeted, and tend to generate incremental innovations. Well-designed direct measures, such as contracts, grants and awards, may therefore be better suited to supporting longer-term, high-risk research, and to targeting innovations that generate public goods or knowledge spillovers.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis and other global challenges demand global solutions: no single country can overcome the pandemic on its own. Governments will continue to face many key uncertainties over the coming months and years, which will shape the threats that research and innovation systems face, and the contributions they can make to addressing climate change and other grand challenges. The key uncertainties framework put forth in the STI Outlook can help policy makers to systematically monitor the evolution of the current crisis and its impacts on STI policy. Together with regular indicators-based monitoring, the framework can operate as an early warning system that alerts policy makers to possible future developments, and allows them to identify alternative pathways or outcomes to pursue or avoid. This framework, as well as the evidence and analysis outlined in our report, aims to help inform policy makers as they weigh their options in times of crisis and opportunity – during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

For more data, insights and analysis, read the full OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021, and visit our eSTI Outlook website. See more key findings from the Outlook here, or watch our full presentation below.

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