Daring Europe to Innovate
Mareeg.com-LUDWIGSHAFEN, GERMANY – Innovation plays a crucial role in creating sustainable
economic growth. Yet we continue to see, particularly in the European Union,
obstacles being placed in the way of those best positioned to invent new products,
services, or ways of doing business. At the heart of the issue appears to be the
fear of risk. But investors, managers, and entrepreneurs must take risks if their
ideas stand any chance of achieving commercial success.
Nowhere are these concerns more discussed, and less understood, than in Europe.
Innovation has been placed at the heart of Europe 2020, the European Commission’s
growth strategy for the EU. But, despite the fact that European scientific research
is among the most advanced in the world, Europe lags behind its global competitors
in its ability to bring these innovations to the market.
Regardless of how one chooses to measure innovation, three conditions must be in
place for it to flourish: a skilled, educated workforce; excellent information and
communications technology infrastructure; and a supportive business environment. In
other words, successful innovation requires a stable and growing economy, fresh
ideas, and an absence of unnecessary and burdensome regulation. The role of
government is crucial. And it is a role that the EU seems to have misunderstood in
at least one important respect: its attitude toward risk.
The EU has long-established institutions and processes for evaluating risk and
ensuring that unacceptable risks are avoided. When policy is required but the
science is unclear, regulatory decisions are increasingly based on the
“precautionary principle,” which is designed to prevent situations in which serious
harm could occur.
However, there is no universally accepted interpretation of the precautionary
principle. North America, for example, has established a good balance between
precaution and proportion. In Europe, by contrast, greater weight is placed on the
avoidance of risk, which is undermining private-sector confidence in investing in
The EU’s goal – to protect human health and the environment – is laudable. But it is
impossible to mitigate all risk, so aiming for this is not feasible. Rather, the
precautionary principle should be used judiciously and rationally, balancing
potential risks with the benefits that innovation and new technology might offer.
This notion of risk underpins economic interactions. Moreover, a policy that strives
to eliminate all risk carries risks of its own. A risk-free approach to innovation
makes it hard to solve vital issues like ensuring food, water, and energy security
for a growing population, or even ensuring that Europe remains technologically
competitive. World-changing innovations – in transport, telecommunications,
medicine, and much else – are almost always the result of taking calculated risks
and balancing these with the benefits that new technologies can provide.
Risk management, after all, is not simply a matter of accepting more or less risk.
It is about having a better understanding of how risk works. When its nature is
properly analyzed and tested, it can be effectively managed and even minimized.
Unfortunately, this does not always appear to be the EU’s approach. In its
regulatory processes, science-based arguments are increasingly losing out to public
opinion, while possible opportunities are undervalued. We have seen this in the
European Commission’s reluctance to decide how products based on green biotechnology
may be used. But there are many similar examples of legal uncertainty threatening to
undermine innovation and investment across a range of technologies and industries,
including chemicals, consumer products, crop protection, electronics, nutrition, and
Given this regulatory environment, chief executives of 12 companies (including
BASF), with a combined annual research-and-development budget of €21 billion ($28
billion), recently proposed the formal adoption of an “innovation principle” in
European risk management and regulatory practice. The idea, conceived and developed
by members of the European Risk Forum, is simple: Whenever precautionary legislation
is under consideration, the impact on innovation should be fully taken into account
in the policymaking process.
The innovation principle does not set out to support innovation regardless of its
impact on health or the environment. Where there is real danger, precautionary
considerations should be uppermost. But the principle does seek to support an
evidence-based approach, relying on sound science. By embracing it, Europe can dare
Kurt Bock is Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors at BASF.