Innovations in Germany Buzzword bingo instead of acceleration: The traffic light is stuck in agency chaos
Germany is to become more innovative, which is why the government is founding a third innovation agency. The apparatus grows with it, but probably not the agility. It is remarkable that the FDP of all people wants this.
Bettina Stark-Watzinger wants to see for herself how acceleration works. The research and education minister recently visited DESY, the German electron synchrotron. The Hamburg campus is about the smallest things and the greatest forces: Particles in the machines are brought to almost 300,000 kilometers per second, that is almost the speed of light – a speed that the FDP politician can also use well. She wants to make Germany an innovation pioneer, but now the traffic light coalition is in danger of getting bogged down with her plans.
Ironically, a new authority should become the accelerator. It's called DATI, German Agency for Innovation and Transfer. It is intended to ensure that millions are not only spent on research in Germany, but that millions are also earned from the results via spin-off companies. But there are already two agencies for this: the Agency for Leap Innovations (SprinD) and the Agency for Innovations in Cybersecurity. They were already adopted by the grand coalition in 2018, but have hardly achieved the desired successes since then, mainly because they are slowed down by bureaucratic procedures and strict guidelines. And now all good things should suddenly come in threes? Hardly likely.
Who is responsible for which innovation?
Because Germany does not become more innovative the more agencies there are. On the contrary. The coordination chaos is only likely to get worse – also in the question of who may take care of which innovation in the future. In the end, the apparatus is more likely to grow than agility. It is remarkable that the FDP, of all people, is promoting this, after all they always want a lean state.
It is undisputed that Germany needs to become more innovative. The Federal Republic of Germany cannot keep up with countries like China, especially when it comes to key digital technologies, criticized the so-called "innovation methods", the members of the Expert Commission for Research and Innovation (EFI), recently in their report. The dependency in the future field of digitization is growing, from EFI's point of view this is a "danger" – but inflating the agency landscape will not be the answer.
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Skepticism in the Ministry of Finance
From the point of view of the traffic light coalition, all three agencies are of course needed. The cyber agency for research transfer in internal and external security. The SprinD for radical innovations, for example in Alzheimer's research. And the DATI for innovations that can be used more quickly. With the DATI, more start-ups are to be spun off, especially at smaller universities, and regional cooperation with medium-sized companies is to be strengthened. Minister Stark-Watzinger wants to spark new "innovation dynamics". Secretary of State for Research Thomas Sattelberger (FDP) calls the DATI a "lighthouse project", the cornerstones of which were presented last week.
But apparently Stark-Watzinger and Sattelberger have not yet convinced their party leader, Finance Minister Christian Lindner. Although 15 million euros are planned for DATI in the draft budget for 2022, the funds are blocked until there is a "conclusive concept".
While there is obviously still a lack of this, there is no lack of dazzling paraphrases: Projects are to be selected via “hackathons”, “regional coaches” are in demand as mediators. "Community building" is just as desirable as "smart specialization" – the DATI concept offers a buzzword bingo in which the only thing missing is the blockchain.
"Agencies are not a panacea"
The innovative minds of the EFI Commission are anything but enthusiastic about the DATI idea. "Agencies are not a panacea," warn the members around the chairman Uwe Cantner, economics professor at the University of Jena. The tasks of the agency would "largely" cover those tasks for which the approximately 15 project management agencies of the BMBF are already responsible. From the point of view of the EFI, it would be more expedient to make these project sponsors more efficient and agile than to set up a new agency.
Even Tom Brökel does not believe that DATI will make Germany more innovative. The agency overlaps “very much with the tasks of classic regional economic development”, it is unclear whether there are any major deficits there at all – and even more so whether a new authority at federal level could remedy them, criticizes Brökel, professor for regional innovation from the University of Stavanger and a member of the Center for Regional and Innovation Economics at the University of Bremen: "It seems as if people are working more with cloudy buzzwords than with scientifically sound ideas."
"Completely overloaded" funding landscape
The promotion of innovation in Germany is already "completely overloaded with actors between whom there is hardly any coordination," explains Brökel. There are federal, state, EU and local programs. "No one can overlook that," criticizes Brökel: "And the extent to which the individual programs and initiatives really make a difference, whether they complement each other or even have a negative impact, has at best only been examined for individual case studies." Instead of creating new redundancies, the existing ones should first be removed will.
Brökel therefore calls for a streamlining: less time-consuming final and interim reports to project sponsors, simplified application and selection procedures, less individual project funding and more joint funding. The location must become more attractive for top international researchers. This also includes expanding the (side) earning and participation opportunities for scientists – in order, for example, to encourage university spin-offs for the transfer of knowledge to the economy.
Thomas Jarzombek (CDU) dealt with innovation transfer in the past legislative period as a start-up officer in the Ministry of Economic Affairs. He cannot understand why DATI wants to exclude top universities from their funding. "We don't need a watering can over 100 universities, but a targeted and large program for the really promising start-ups," he explains. Innovation centers would have to be affiliated with top universities and backed with venture capital. Because especially in the deep-tech area, it is about “financing ten years and more development work”.
The FDP does not want “one in, one out”.
Instead of "creating new problem children", the existing agencies should "be brought forward", says Jarzombek, who demands "one in, one out": "For every new agency, an old one is abolished. Absurdly, however, the FDP in particular expressly rejects this."
Although the SprinD is to be unleashed with a “freedom law”, it is unclear when. A draft bill, which includes a “global budget”, is currently being coordinated between the departments.
There are also many questions at DATI: not only about the specific concept, but also about the legal form and who sits on the three planned committees for management, supervision and advice. The ministry now wants to conduct a "stakeholder dialogue" about the further development – "light speed", as in Hamburg's DESY, is not in sight for Germany's innovation promotion for the time being.
Also read: Gas from Russia, technologies from China: SAP CEO Christian Klein and Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger speak in a double interview about lessons from dependency, digital disaster and taboos.
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