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The “Smartest Guys in the Room” theory of innovation policy

One thing people who study innovation really hate is the so-called “linear model of innovation”, and how it dominates government policy. This blog post is an attempt to identify why the linear model is so persistent, despite being widely debunked by experts.

In case you’re not an innovation insider, let me explain what the “linear model” is. It’s the assumption that innovation is mostly about doing clever science and then commercialising it, and that there is a “linear” flow from the former to the latter.

Policymakers in thrall to the linear model often assume that good innovation policy involves funding lots of basic science and then paying for a fairly limited set of things that “translate” it into reality, like setting up university tech transfer offices or subsidising venture capital.

Innovation experts hate the model because:

  1. It’s inaccurate – this isn’t the place to explain why, but if you don’t know, you could start with this excellent short article by Paul Nightingale and Alex Coad or Steven Johnson’s TED talk.
  2. It leads to bad policy. In particular, it leads to an obsession with basic academic science and on a fairly limited range of other policies, mostly geared at commercialising academic IP.

In this post I’m interested not in why the linear model is wrong, which has been amply discussed elsewhere, but in why it is so persistent. It comes up time and time again in policy conversations I’ve been in, and is reflected in government funding allocations and structures.

A lot of innovation scholars I speak to blame simple ignorance. Policymakers are just ill-informed, and if they spent more time listening to sensible people (like, er, innovation scholars), they’d realise the error of their ways and make better policy.                                                                       

But I can’t help thinking there’s more to it than that. Persistent bad ideas usually have something going for them other than human beings’ basic stupidity (and in my experience, science and innovation ministers are rarely stupid people – if anything, it’s the job that gets given to problematically clever politicians).

So I have two functional explanations for the persistence of the linear model and the dominance of basic science. Let’s call these two rationales the administrative theory, and the smartest-guys-in-the-room theory.

First, an administrative explanation. This argues that government focuses on funding and translating science as a by-product of the way government works.

Generally when government spends money on something, it employs people to oversee the spending. The more money is spent, the more influential the jobs, and the smarter and more credible the people attracted to them. Now, in the UK and most rich countries, the government is the main funder of basic research. Government does much less funding of so-called downstream research and a lot of that requires little management (it takes the form of R&D tax credits, which are given out semi-automatically to claimants, not managed by officials).

We’d expect there to be more public-sector jobs managing academic research funding than other forms of innovation, and for more political attention to be dedicated to it. And indeed, that’s what we find in reality. The UK’s innovation minister is called the Minister for Universities and Science. The Higher Education directorate, which controls research funding, has traditionally been bigger and more powerful in BIS than the bit responsibility for innovation. In government, as in many other places, power follows money.

Perhaps this public-choice account of the struggle between innovation and research is a sufficient explanation. But I can’t help thinking there’s something else at stake. I’ve sat through dozens of meetings between so-called “innovation stakeholders” and ministers or senior officials, and I’ve noticed an unusual and recurrent dynamic that I’m convinced plays a role in the longevity of the linear model.

Let’s call this the “smartest guys in the room” theory of innovation policy. The best way to explain this is to describe the cast list at the kind of consultative meeting that ministers often hold to inform their policy on innovation. (If you’re involved in innovation policy, I think you’ll recognise these meetings, perhaps with a certain heavy-heartedness.)

At these meetings, you’ll normally have some people involved in scientific research in academia, and then some people involved in more applied fields, such as R&D-intensive businesses, innovation agencies or economic development bodies like Innovate UK or perhaps investors. Officials, being fair-minded people, usually strive for a balance between the former group and the latter.

Let’s think about what these attendees are like. First, the scientists. These are the people who are most likely to think of policy in terms of the linear model: funding basic research and then helping it to “be commercialised”. The popular stereotype of scientists is that they are geeky men with poor social skills. But whether the stereotype is true or not, it’s not the Big-Bang-Theory beta-males who get invited to ministerial round tables. The people who get the round table invites are typically alpha scientists: prestigious Nobel Laureates, heads of learned societies and university vice-chancellors. They’re academic silverbacks (of both genders), the smartest guys (and gals) in the room. These are people who are not only “good at science” but also extraverted and comfortable with dealing with committees. Ministers on the whole like to please them. What’s more, because most academics depend on public funding for their livelihood, they have to know how to interact with ministers, and they take discussions of public policy seriously.

Now consider the other attendees, the ones more likely to break from the linear models of innovation. Some of them are lower status than prestigious scientists. For better or for worse, innovation agencies and economic development bodies tend to enjoy relatively low status in governments (the reasons for this merit a blog post of their own, but suffice it to say this doesn’t reflect the quality of the people who work in them, many of whom are excellent and highly committed). In my experience ministers are always more likely to listen to a Nobel Laureate with a global reputation than the head of their own economic development organisation. (The same applies on the rare occasions social scientists who know about innovation processes get a seat around the table – for politicians, science eats social science for breakfast.)

The other people who might cast doubt on the linear model are businesspeople. Businesspeople and investors, of course, often enjoy high status with ministers. But they have a different disadvantage in any contest with academic scientists: they have less at stake. Even a research-intensive business that gets lots of government funding is far less dependent on the taxpayer than the typical university. As a result, they are (in my experience) less likely to have a clear line to push with government and less likely to fight their corner if a disagreement arises. The businessperson comes to an innovation policy meeting at BIS on some level as a public-spirited favour; the vice chancellor comes with clear goals in mind.

So we have a set-up where the people most likely to defend the linear model – academic scientists – are prestigious in minsters’ eyes and highly incented to get their way, while people likely to deviate from the linear model – economic development people or businesspeople – are either of lower status or less aggressive in putting their case.

Should it surprise us that the smartest (most prestigious, most strongly incented) guys in the room impose their world-view on policy makers?


* This blog post is inspired by a question asked by the distinguished innovation scholar Charles Edquist at a recent conference in Taipei. Professor Edquist recounted the many well-known flaws in the linear model and asked why policy-makers, even in well governed countries like Sweden, still clove to it.


Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Executive Director of Policy and Research

Stian led Nesta's Policy and Research team. His research interests included the measurement of innovation and its effects on productivity, the role of high-growth businesses in the eco…

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