COMMENT

Greece must attract top R&D performers

This and other issues to be discussed at the 1st Hellenic Innovation Forum on October 7 and 8 By Alexander Kritikos & Odysseas Cartalos

Greece is still in dire straits. Some reform progress during the last three years has contributed to improving the economic outlook, but it has become clear that as much as the reforms are needed, the economy will not become prosperous simply by cutting costs and making institutional reforms. Shifting the emphasis from austerity to growth has dominated the political agenda almost since the beginning of the crisis, but as is often pointed out, the Greek growth model has not yet been defined.

While in recent years the most developed countries around the world have largely invested in building innovation-driven economies, Greece has not. Greece needs to use them as role models, aiming to create long-term sustainable wealth by focusing on innovative industries with high added value.

In Greece today, at a first glance, the preconditions for an innovation economy appear to be suboptimal, with only small parts of an innovation system being in place. The country spends around 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development activities, less than any other eurozone economy. In addition, private R&D investments make up less than 0.2 percent of GDP. Sweden, at the other end of the spectrum, allocates 3 percent of its GDP to private R&D.

A closer look at research and innovation activities in Greece reveals that some excellent basic research institutes and a few small but innovative companies do exist around the country. However, given the high regulatory burden and the unfriendly environment toward innovative companies, great innovations in basic research cannot spill over into new business in Greece. Instead, these ideas are used by business abroad. Last but not least, while some networks have started to emerge very recently, most institutes still work in an isolated manner, and the majority of their top researchers leave the country.

Innovation is at the heart of the next EU programming period and Brussels is pushing regions and countries to concentrate on their innovative capacities. The Commission funding in the next programming period will be based on smart specialization strategies proposed by the regions, and it is only such projects that will be eligible for support from structural funds. In addition, a number of new measures are included in Horizon 2020, the upcoming program for research and innovation aimed at strengthening European and national research systems. These two new approaches are the most crucial opportunities for Greece to develop its innovation strategy at a national and regional level.

Of particular importance for Greece is the Teaming for Excellence program. The scheme will offer substantial funding on a competitive basis for projects aimed at developing cutting-edge research centers in less advanced EU regions. The proposals will be submitted by teams comprising an internationally recognized research institute – among those of the European elite – and people from the host region. The key objective is to provide a high-speed lift to excellence in research and innovation in countries such as Greece, allowing them to align high-quality science with technology-based entrepreneurship. Such an objective cannot be reached without the involvement of top research performers, who would be attracted by the establishment of new research centers. In fact, top scientists are most likely to make breakthrough discoveries and inventions, which can prompt new science, technology and industrial activities. The outstanding performance of top scientists will attract talented young researchers with strong motivations: The higher the reputation of the top scientists, the stronger and more competitive the research teams around them will be. Moreover, top research performers will be able to trigger private R&D activities and draw venture capital to them. Information and communications technology industries around Stanford, biotech around Harvard and MIT, the Berlin Adlershof Technology Park, and the research labs of private companies in Zurich, close to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), are all examples of premium private investment to get access to the best brains.

A strong prerequisite for the success of the teaming competition scheme is that the emphasis is placed on creating the conditions for top performers to relocate and play a leading role in enhancing an innovation-conducive environment in less advanced regions. With this perspective, the scheme is crucial for Greece, as it offers a concrete opportunity for the country to boost its innovation capacity and attract distinguished scientists from around the world, no matter whether these are Greeks or not.

The final choices will very much depend on the proactive involvement of potential stakeholders – regional authorities and governments, research managers, regional business associations – and the development of a convincing plan for such research centers to be developed.

In the very competitive process to obtain funding and launch a leading research center, Greece’s major assets are its current research potential, its culture and living conditions, as well as its distinguished diaspora. A Greek project will only have a chance if the key actors understand the magnitude of the task and are ready to compete with other European countries at the highest level.

This and other issues will be discussed at the 1st Hellenic Innovation Forum organized by IZA Bonn and the Eugenides Foundation in Athens in cooperation with the EU Task Force for Greece on October 7 and 8.

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