Horizon Europe: What we can (and cannot) learn from mission-oriented space policies.
Policies relating to space are often used as an example by innovation scholars. Due to enormous amounts of R&D in space technologies, long development times, high dependency on governments, and the high spillover effects, the space sector is emblematic for other sectors dealing with innovation challenges. Sectors such as pharmacy, manufacturing and energy are heavily inspired by space policies, skyrocketing innovative activities within its sector.
Today, we are facing several large societal challenges. To tackle these challenges, we require clearly defined goals, collaborative action, and strong guidance by policymakers. Again, space is an often used example in these so called mission-oriented innovation policies. When John F. Kennedy defined its mission in 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, it led to one of the biggest innovation projects we have ever seen. The ambitious project not only led to the successful Apollo landing in 1969, it also generated many jobs, technological innovation and spill-overs, and scientific knowledge.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” – John F. Kennedy, 1961
Innovation scholars today are arguing that, once again, we need to engage in such mission-oriented innovation policies to tackle the pressing problems to our society, while simultaneously creating opportunities for economic prosperity. These rationales form the principles of the next EU research & innovation investment program: Horizon Europe. Through clearly defined missions, the program indeed aims to address large societal challenges and spur economic activity at the same time. This program can not only bring many opportunities to the space sector, but it also learns from innovation policies in the space sector.
This is due to the fact that current mission-oriented innovation policies are indeed quite similar to those that put a man on the moon. However, there are also major differences between the policies dating back to 1961 and current policies. Mazzucato defines the difference between these two types of mission-oriented innovation policies as type-1 and type-2. Historic mission-oriented policies were mainly focused on clear (technological) outcomes and administered by centralized policymaking (type-1). Current policies have much more complex challenges they aim to address, such as addressing climate change, ending poverty, or the energy transition (type-2).
This shift in mission-oriented policies has already been present in the European policies on space and earth observation. While early European space policies were mainly targeted at technological advancements and space exploration, current policies are much broader in scope and designed to address large wicked problems. With the development of the Copernicus program, ESA and the European Commission aim to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change, while simultaneously contributing to the European economy by opening up many business opportunities. Due to its similar objectives of Horizon Europe, policymakers can once more rely on the pioneering role of these space policies.
The first thing policymakers can learn from the experiences on the type-2 mission-oriented innovation policy of the Copernicus program is the challenge of aligning its ambitious goals. Addressing societal challenges while simultaneously create economic opportunities has shown quite difficult for the program to achieve. With the free and open data policy, policymakers try to open up business opportunities for a commercial downstream sector. This limits, however, the guidance on the development and use of satellite-based applications. For Horizon Europe to effectively deal with these challenges, the problems the program aims to address are clearly defined and divided into achievable actions.
Secondly, in the strategies of the development of the Copernicus program, a two-step approach was taken. First EU bodies would develop applications based on the space data and act as a pioneer user. Then, once the market was consolidated, it would be the role of private downstream businesses to deliver data services to private end-users. This approach has led to a high dependency on public developers and buyers, limiting the creation of a commercial downstream sector. Similar programs, such as Horizon Europe, should avoid such a sequential approach and develop a market and technological solutions simultaneously.
Finally, there is still limited legitimacy among end-users on the use of space data in everyday applications. Various reasons cause people to prefer conventional monitoring methods over radically innovative techniques, such as satellite remote sensing. However, due to positive assessments on the role satellite data can play in addressing societal challenges, the legitimacy of the technology is improving. Reports, such as the recent Compendium of EO contributions to the SDGs, help raise confidence in the ability of earth observation on addressing complex challenges. It is therefore essential that policymakers keep reporting on successes in addressing the earlier described achievable actions.