European innovation policy needs crises, not abstractions

The electromechanical machine Bombe was one of the contributions of Turing to descifrate the german communications during the second World War. Image: Wikimedia

The status of Alan Turing, whose centenary was celebrated this June, as the father of computing rests in large part on his work at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. There, as part of a massive team of mathematicians, linguists, sociologists and other scientists, he helped lay the foundations of computer science and artificial intelligence, and made substantial contributions to cryptology, information theory, statistics and telecommunications.

What spurred these advances? The German U‐boats that were sinking Allied ships in the North Atlantic pretty much at will. Cracking German military codes was a question of national survival. That wars spawn so much science and technology is hardly a novel insight. But European policymakers, despite throwing big money at innovation, seem not to have learnt what it is that makes wartime so conducive to both basic and applied science, and how such conditions could be recreated in peacetime.

The first point is that an existential threat justifies politicians devoting vast economic and intellectual resources towards specific problems urgently. Second, such purposeful problem‐solving spawns entire ecosystems of derivative innovations and peripheral industries. The early computers used by Turing to crack the Enigma, or John Von Neumann in the US to calculate missile trajectories, used vacuum tubes. Their miserable reliability motivated the invention of the solid‐state transistor. The internet grew from cold war efforts to eliminate failure points in communications infrastructure.

In no circumstances, of course, should we argue for war, disaster capitalism or other forms of engineered malaise as a means to channel resources in a particular direction. Rather, the policy implications of war’s effect on innovation are largely ones of rhetoric.

Policymakers should frame scientific and innovation programmes as responses to well‐defined problems that require an urgent response, or even threaten our existence. Issues defined thus gain political protection, keeping policy focused and resources protected.

Another implication is that policies framed too abstractly fail to resonate. Is ageing, for example, really a threat to my existence, or a nice‐to‐have social phenomenon? And while I understand intellectually that water management will be the next big geopolitical challenge, my individual reality is that water is plentiful and virtually free. Browsing through the EU’s Horizon 2020 material, what exactly, I wonder, are ‘climate action’, ‘inclusive, innovative and secure societies’, ‘bio‐economy’ and ‘wellbeing’? Awkward abstractions at best.

Finally, the policy message must speak to our humanity. Donors give substantially more money when presented with a photo of a young girl who cannot attend school in the developing world than they do to a campaign to support malaria eradication based on a barrage of statistics. The image elicits our emotions—and deeds—more effectively than a mist of figures.

Jonathan Wareham

Vice-Dean of Research at the Business School

(published in Research Fortnight, 22 November 2012)

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