7.3.5RECOMMENDATION 5: INCREASING REGIONAL IMPACT OF PUBLIC R&D INVESTMENTS

Top innovations should also be translated in economic and societal success, both in Flanders (at the regional level and in all provinces) and internationally. However, the regional and international impact of R&D is unbalanced. A better balance is needed with more attention to the impact of public R&D investments in Flanders also taking into account regional economic strengths. However, achieving regional impact of innovations based on R&D is more than a financing problem, achieving a 3% R&D norm... Despite several success stories, we have not yet sufficiently found the mechanism or mechanisms to realize regional impact of research in Flanders. In Flanders we are not yet sufficiently successful in commercializing innovations based on public R&D. VARIO puts forward six working points to increase the impact of research in Flanders:

1. Making use of the dynamics of regional knowledge and business ecosystems: international economic competitiveness is increasingly shifting from the individual company level to competitiveness based on ecosystems or networks. VARIO asks to monitor the dynamics of new, emerging knowledge and business ecosystems in Flanders by means of advanced data analysis. This information can be used by VLAIO and its partners, vzw Team Bedrijfstrajecten and in tandem with FIT to increase the growth of emerging ecosystems and the new players involved in them; to connect new emerging ecosystems with other (international or cross-border) knowledge and innovation partners, to show the way to international markets...;

2. Making innovation instruments ecosystem-proof: in order to prevent fragmentation of resources and to make innovation instruments more ecosystem-proof, a screening and impact analysis of the instruments must be carried out (including the R&D business projects); learn from this and better attune it to the reality and dynamics of local ecosystems in Flanders. In tandem with VLAIO, FIT should also play an important role in ensuring the international impact of innovations from local ecosystems;

3. To better align public strategic research resources with strengths in local innovation ecosystems: we need to further improve regional absorptive capacity[1] by better aligning strategic public R&D resources with local economic strengths in Flanders... VARIO asks to explore how financial resources can be shifted to better match public strategic research investments with regional economic strengths;

4. Stimulating demand-driven innovations: VARIO asks to focus more strongly on demand-driven innovations based on social and/or economic demands: strategic innovative procurement and mission-oriented R&D policies. VARIO refers to the Dutch Top Sector Policy[2] and the German High-tech Strategy 2025[3] which have been oriented to missions as well as the European agenda (e.g. Horizon Europe, the Green Deal…);

5. Entrepreneurial universities of the 21st century: in addition to education and research, universities also contribute to society (3rd mission of universities). If we want to increase the impact of R&D investments in Flanders, universities (and other knowledge institutions) absolutely need to pay lot more attention to the 3rd mission (societal service), with enough attention to the impact of research in Flanders itself. VARIO formulates four action points:

  • Especially in research projects of strategic importance (SBO[4]), a societal impact implementation plan should be built in that is just as important as the more technical research part and is evaluated as such post hoc;
  • VARIO urges to make the TTOs[5] (1) more accessible to the demand-side, based on so-called Flipped TTOs in which ambitious entrepreneurs play a central role, (2) creating a stronger ‘Yes We Can’ mentality for academic entrepreneurship (in order to create more spinoffs with stronger growth ambitions) and (3) achieving more critical mass by means of stronger cooperation between individual TTOs (in a learning network)…;
  • The importance of innovation and the impact of research on the world outside university is not yet sufficiently captured by most academic researchers. It should be investigated to what extent innovation KPIs can play a role in academic practice and how research funding could be more attuned to impact and innovation efforts;
  • A stronger focus on circular mobility of highly educated domestic and international talent between knowledge institutions and the local economy in Flanders[6]. Regarding international talent, we refer to VARIO’s Advice 1 ‘Attracting and retaining international top talent[7] and the joint research project of VARIO and VLUHR[8] Economic effects of international student mobility’.

6. Promoting Flanders as an attractive, international high-tech hotspot: VARIO puts forward two action points:

  • Abroad, we should promote Flanders in a more coherent and stronger way as an international innovative high-tech hub. FIT should play an important role together with the local innovation partners (Strategic Research Centers, spearhead clusters, Universities and Universities of Applied Sciences…), (local) governments… The quality of our knowledge workers, the excellence of our research, the tax support measures for researchers... are important assets;
  • We undoubtedly need to improve our reputation abroad on several other indicators in the areas of innovation, competitiveness, quality of government, a more attractive business environment... Some of these bottlenecks are also situated at the federal level.

[1] VARIO notes that also other factors such as the number of STEM graduates determine the absorption capacity of (public) R&D investments. For example, China invests a great deal in R&D, likewise they also have the human capital (many engineers) to absorb these resources.
[2] https://www.topsectoren.nl/missiesvoordetoekomst
[3] https://www.bmbf.de/en/high-tech-strategy-2025.html
[4] https://www.fwo.be/en/fellowships-funding/research-projects/sbo-projects/
[5] TTO corresponds to Technology Transfer Office
[6] See also open letter to policy makers in De Tijd, 4th of July 2020 https://www.antwerpmanagementschool.be/nl/nieuws/its-the-knowledge-and-talent-stupid

[7] https://www.vario.be/en/publications/advisory-report-1-attracting-and-retaining-top-international-talent
[8] VLUHR is the Flemish umbrella organization of universities and the universities of applied sciences (UAS):