Friday, July 10, 2015

Interview: Greece’s Research and Innovation policy prospects

Alternate Minister for Research and Innovation, Costas Fotakis, was interviewed by Greek News Agenda on Greece’s relevant policy prospects.

Costas Fotakis has been President of FORTH (Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas), since 2011 and he is Professor of Physics at the University of Crete.

Does Greece have comparative advantages in the areas of Researc h& Innovation? What are Greece’s R&I policy prospects?

Apart from being a pillar for Education and Culture, Research and Innovation (R&I) can become an engine for growth. To achieve this, it is necessary to establish an appropriate policies mix to create a conducive environment for the whole Innovation chain: that is, from basic and applied research to the exploitation of the outcome of research and creation of wealth. These policies should also address the social issues and benefits of this process. Given this, a major objective for us is to create R&I- friendly policies, facilitating the evolution of a new axis for socio-economic growth, based on Knowledge Culture and Innovation. This will be the axis of “smart growth” for the country.

Concrete reforms for removing obstacles within the Innovation chain and simultaneously strengthening competitive advantages in the country are priorities. For example, the existing competitive scientific potential in Greece, which is one of the most important aspects, should be preserved and boosted further. Despite the current socio-economic crises, researchers in Greek Universities and Research Organizations rank highly internationally, as several performance indexes indicate. What is crucial is reversing the brain drain and encouraging instead ‘brain circulation’ and the pursuit of high scientific quality and excellence are prerequisites in this respect.

The legal and financial frame for R&I is the weak part of the chain and this must be improved. Eliminating the “bureaucracy beast” is the prime challenge in this respect! Emphasis will be placed on the simplification of the existing regulatory system for using research funds by establishing clear rules, easily adaptable to the flexibility required by research while simultaneously safeguarding the public interest. This applies in particular to the rules applied for the use of Structural Funds for R&I actions, which are highly ineffective nowadays. The role of the European Commission is also critical in this respect.

Greece has a highly specialized human capital but suffers a brain drain with serious implications for the economy. Can this stop?

Reversing the brain drain and enhancing brain mobility are the focus of several new initiatives to be supported through the Structural Funds. Indeed, human potential capacity building is central to our planning, through mobilizing scientific resources inside the country as well as attracting back talented young scientists, especially those who left the country during the last five years of crisis. To do this we have to ensure a vibrant environment for the youth: removing barriers to launching new ideas and creating opportunities for talent to flourish.

Business sector R&D expenditure is one of the lowest among OECD countries. Can this situation change?

Boosting the funding opportunities for Research besides the public funding through national resources and the EU Framework Programs is necessary. Emphasis will be placed on the exploitation of emerging risk financing instruments for R&I at European level. Along these lines, initiatives for the reduction of the cost of money (currently a Greek innovative company has to borrow with 7 - 8 % interest rate) for start-ups and the R&I sector.

The development of hybrid funds based on co-investments from the public sector and private investors, venture capital and/or risk financing instruments, such as the Juncker plan, is expected to decrease the high cost of money for innovative business which is a serious drawback for entrepreneurial activities in the country and give rise to multiple funding opportunities. It is critical to generate investments for pursuing high quality Research through the appropriate public-private mix.

The formation of vibrant, locally-based “ecosystems” which are scientific, intellectual, cultural and entrepreneurial hub - including Universities and Research Infrastructures in close proximity with thematic company clusters - as well as funding opportunities and support mechanisms are thought to be effective factors for implementing these policies.

Support within such hubs of demand (or market) driven research is expected to facilitate R&D initiatives for technology transfer, absorption and adaptation by Greek SMEs, which lack or cannot sustain R&D Departments. The results may be visible in the short term with direct influence on the economy.

Can the promotion of R&I be a factor for better reputation for Greece?

Greece has reached a good reputation scientifically, ranking 18th in the R&I domain (Innovation Union Scoreboard 2012). This is due to an impressive output of high impact publications, as well as successes among Greek scientists in attracting funding from competitive programs. This has to be built on. There is a clear need for new thinking and new policies for giving added value to what already exists in Greece and developing new initiatives for R&I. Research and Innovation may become drivers for growth in Greece, alongside Agro food, Tourism and Shipping. The existence of long-term political commitment and vision are crucial for the success of this endeavor.

  • Innovation Economy, the Future of Greece? 

Germany as a Model

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, author of “The Entrepreneurial State”, has recently argued (Why Greece  should follow Germany’s walk, not its talk, PBS, March 24, 2015) that “the countries that are doing well today in Europe are those that have been investing more in all the areas that increase productivity: human capital formation; education; research and development; and key public institutions, like public banks which provide patient capital to innovators (KfW in Germany) and organizations that increase the links between science and industry (e.g. Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany) – both increasing productivity across sectors…”

Mazzucato concludes that “Europe should have a common investment plan so that more countries do what Germany actually does (investing in R&D) … not what it says it does (tightening its belt!)”.

 Transition towards an Innovation Economy?

From a different point of view, Alexander Kritikos, Research Director at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) underlines that “With feta cheese, olives and retsina, the Greek economy cannot come off the ground”. Kritikos has published extensively on Greece’s innovation policy prospects: “Research and Innovation with state funding” are the key words proposed by Kritikos for “a debt-ridden country and entrepreneurship environment that are falling apart due to lack of investment liquidity and huge bureaucracy”.

Given Greece's hidden assets, such as the attractiveness of the country, a number of strong research centers (such as the Demokritos Center in Athens, FORTH in Crete, and CERTH in Thessaloniki), an impressive diaspora in research, finance and business, as well as a considerable number of small but innovative companies all over Greece that have developed new ideas, Kritikos envisions (Greece Needs a Strategy for its Transition to an Innovation Economy, October 2014) a Greek “Silicon Valley.” He proposes an ambitious policy plan to achieve that goal through the development of existing and establishment of new research institutes, incentives for researchers to stay in Greece, expanding research clusters based on existing specialization, risk capital for start-ups and offer start-up grants, strengthening of the education system and professional training, and improving regulations for (innovative) enterprises.

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