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Research programmes with a mission

22 March 2022
Lessons for challenge-driven innovation policy

By: thisisengineering- Unsplash

Medewerkers kijken in de control room mee op de verschillende schermen
We cannot solve the great challenges of our time through technological innovation alone. For example, the transition to circular agriculture envisaged by the outgoing Dutch government, requires not only new farming techniques, but also a revolution in the way we market, transport and even consume food. To achieve this kind of transition, it helps to develop innovation policies which have a different focus. In a Message to Parliament in 2020, the Rathenau Instituut advocated challenge-driven innovation policy, an approach that does not try to promote specific technologies or sectors, but takes a societal challenge as its starting point.

The Rathenau Instituut wants to use this report to contribute to the continuing development of this new genre of challenge-driven innovation policy. We focus on research programmes that are intended to help address societal challenges. Based on insights from the scientific literature and an analysis of three international examples, we formulate some points of attention for organising this type of research programme.




In recent years, the Dutch government has been trying to focus science and innovation policies more strongly on societal challenges, such as reducing climate change, keeping healthcare affordable or transitioning to a sustainable system of food production and consumption. This is reflected, for example, in the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA) and in the government's mission-oriented top sectors and innovation policy introduced in 2019. This policy change is part of a broader international trend in which governments are seeking to use research and innovation in a more targeted way to address complex societal challenges. This ambition differs from previous research and innovation policies that focused on economic earning power, technological opportunities or scientific curiosity. The new ambition to help address societal challenges in a targeted way calls for a new, complementary genre of research and innovation policy. We call this challenge-driven research and innovation policy

The Rathenau Instituut wants to contribute to the development of this new genre, and does so in various projects. In previous publications we reflected on, among other things, developments within Dutch innovation policy and the way in which the European Union is fulfilling its ambition to refocus research and innovation on societal challenges. In this study, our focus is on research programmes, as there is little experience with these programmes to date. The key research question is: what requirements does a challenge-driven approach impose on the design and management of research programmes?

Based on desk research, a workshop, and an analysis of international examples, this report explores what it takes to design and manage challenge-driven research programmes. Our goal is to provide practical insights for those involved in the funding, design, governance and management of research programmes, such as research funders, programme managers, and policy staff in the various government departments.

The report consists of four parts: In the first part (Sections 1 and 2), we position challenge-driven research programmes within a broader trend in which the government is trying to mobilise research and innovation more specifically towards societal challenges. We describe characteristic differences between challenge-driven programmes and innovation-driven programmes. In Section 3, we discuss three international examples of programmes with challenge-driven features. In Section 4, we identify practical building blocks which can be used to design and manage challenge-driven research programmes. Finally, we reflect on questions that this new way of programming raises about the multiple roles of government in mobilising research and innovation in challenge-driven research programmes. 


Challenge-driven research programmes
Based on the literature, we argue that challenge-driven research programmes have a different ‘theory of change’ than traditional research programmes that focus on stimulating new knowledge and new (often technological) solutions. The starting point of challenge-driven programmes is not the promise of new scientific knowledge or an emerging key technology, but a complex societal problem and the socio-technical system change needed to solve it. The nature of the problem and the system change determine what knowledge and solutions are needed. It may be just as necessary to combine knowledge from different sources and disciplines as it is to develop new knowledge or technology. Another typical component of a challenge-driven theory of change therefore involves connecting, reordering and building knowledge ecosystems.

Because challenge-driven research programmes are based on a different theory of change than conventional research programmes, research funders and programme managers will have to develop new ways of working. The question is how.

Three international cases
We look at three international examples to learn lessons on ways of designing and managing challenge-driven research programmes:

  1. CGIAR's Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme. CGIAR is a global alliance of international organisations involved in food security research.
  2. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense responsible for developing emerging technologies for use by the military.
  3. The Utmaningsdriven innovation (UDI, challenge-driven innovation) programme of VINNOVA, the innovation agency of the Swedish government.

We selected these three cases because they all have a specific (societal) challenge as a starting point. CGIAR's CCAFS programme mobilises research to help develop a safe and future-proof food system. DARPA promotes research and technology development to enhance national security. Sweden's UDI programme funds research and innovation to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

It turned out that the three programmes were not challenge-driven in every respect as defined above. Of the three programmes, Sweden's UDI most closely resembles a conventional innovation-driven programme using calls for proposals which allow researchers and stakeholders ample scope to develop and submit their own project proposals. The CCAFS and DARPA examples provide more avenues for learning about the targeted mobilisation of research and innovation to address societal challenges.

Both in CCAFS and DARPA we observe an active and guiding role for programme management. The design, governance and management of the programmes are based on a well-developed theory of change which takes the societal challenge as its starting point. Unlike conventional innovation-driven programmes, programme management remains closely involved with the projects over the course of the projects. Programme managers make interim adaptations when there is a risk of the projects no longer aligning with the overarching programme. With CCAFS, we also see that the programme explicitly addresses responsible research practices at both project and programme level. At all stages of the programme cycle, participants work with actors who are needed to put the knowledge and solutions developed into practice, such as local communities. They therefore pay close attention to the way research programmes are embedded in the ongoing innovation and transition process.

Building blocks for a challenge-driven approach
From our desk research and international cases, we distil two major characteristics of challenge-driven research programmes that carry over into their design, organisation and control: active programme management and reflexivity.

1.          Active programme management throughout the programme cycle

The international cases show that challenge-driven programming of research requires active and decisive programme management to organise and monitor their orientation towards societal challenges. Appropriate activities include developing a shared theory of change at the start of the programme, creating and monitoring coherence between projects, adapting specific projects as necessary, organising interactions with stakeholders inside and outside the programme and integrating results.

 2.          Learning approach

Challenge-driven research programming also requires reflexivity in which programme management and participants regularly reflect on whether the theory of change is still appropriate and whether the projects and goals are still relevant. After all, the societal context in which the results must be applied is dynamic, and interim project results may prompt adjustments to the portfolio, e.g. by organising additional activities, involving new parties or linking up projects.

These two characteristics require investment in time and in skills. These investments can only be justified if the active and targeted mobilisation of research actually ensures a more effective contribution to addressing the challenge concerned. Partly for this reason, proper monitoring and evaluation is important.

From the literature and the analysis of international examples, we have distilled practical action options for adopting a challenge-driven approach in research programming. We describe these options using ten phases of the programme cycle, from programme preparation to completion and evaluation.

Concluding remarks on roles of government
Challenge-driven programmes depend in part on active and variegated involvement and direction from policymakers. Indeed, a typical feature of challenge-driven research programmes is that government itself is also part of the underlying theory of change - often in different ways. To a greater extent than in innovation-driven research programmes, it is important for government to participate in the design of the theory of change. This is necessary to focus the programme on public values and to make explicit what roles the government itself should play.

We identify typical roles that the government can play, e.g. creating the right conditions for developing the programme, investing in and supplying knowledge, participating in projects and promoting knowledge utilisation in policy and/or practice.