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Innovation Policy and Chronic Emergencies

Posted by on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 in Articles, Volume 24, Volume 24, Issue 2.

Robert Burrell and Catherine Kelly | 24 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 221 (2022)

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the potential role of the state as a driver of scientific innovation onto center stage. Vaccines have been developed and brought to market in a timescale that seemed almost impossible when the crisis first struck. The pivotal nature of government intervention in this crisis has added to calls from academics and policy makers to adopt a more proactive, mission-oriented approach to innovation policy to tackle other key global challenges.

This Article considers the merits of these calls and argues that an important distinction must be drawn between what this Article terms acute and chronic emergencies. COVID-19 is a paradigmatic example of an acute emergency: its onset was rapid, its impact was dramatic, and it is a problem that demands resolution for life to proceed “as normal.” Chronic emergencies, such as the problem of Anti-Microbial Resistance, can be just as, or more deadly than, acute emergencies but have a “frog in the pot” quality. They emerge over time, and, although they can have profound social and economic effects, they do so in ways that are less immediate and hence less demanding of government attention. Without the urgency, sense of purpose, and spirit of cooperation that accompany acute emergencies, there is a risk that mission-oriented approaches may fail to deliver new technologies the world urgently needs. This Article considers the problem of applying mission-oriented approaches to chronic emergencies. The analysis is grounded in an examination of Britain’s system of innovation rewards in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drawing on an extensive historical data set that the authors are continuing to develop. The central argument put forward in this Article is that Britain’s historical system offers lessons for crafting state intervention to spur innovation aimed at chronic emergencies today. Britain’s historical system was effective because rewards were largely bestowed post hoc with relatively little prescription as to the problems at which innovators should direct their efforts, and still less as to the methods and means that should be used to tackle them. Perhaps most importantly, these rewards fed into and helped create a culture of innovation.

The Article concludes with a proposal for change—namely, that the way innovation prizes are designed should be reconsidered. Prizes must preserve space for scientific and technical freedom and ought not to be built around the sort of rigidly defined criteria that proponents of mission-oriented innovation policies often advocate.

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Robert Burrell

Catherine Kelly