Wetenschap - 13 januari 2011

Are Innovation Awards a good idea?

New knowledge that benefits society. Science you can do something with. A prize can be a useful carrot to spur people on, said Aalt Dijkhuizen at the New Year reception. Is that sort of Innovation Award a good idea?

Auke de Bruin, operations director at Alterra

'Researchers often have highly innovative ideas but no chance to carry them out because they have no client and therefore no money. This was why we introduced the 'innovation incentive' three years ago. Anyone with an idea, however sketchy, can apply to us - a few lines of text are all we need. Ten of these ideas are picked to be further developed into a presentation. Then a jury chooses three that are rewarded with 30,000 euros towards the implementation. The criteria applied are policy relevance, market potential, innovativeness and the quality of the presentation. This approach is intended to generate new projects and funding. We think it's working well, providing this kind of stimulus in advance. It is enormously popular and meets a need. You generate new ideas with it which are also put into practice. So an award can work well.
Aalt Dijkhuizen is trying to raise the innovation factor at Wageningen UR. That is entirely in keeping with the zeitgeist and with this cabinet's vision. It is vital for Wageningen to think in more market-oriented terms. That makes an award of this kind an important signal to the organization: this is the direction we are going in.'

Rijkelt Beumer, professor of Food Technology
'I do not think it is a good idea for Wageningen UR to give a prize to its own scientists. You should leave it to others to assess how good you are. When I look in the mirror in the morning when I shave, I think I'm great, but my colleagues might see that differently. I'm against colleagues assessing each other: it has too much scope for conflicts of interest and you can easily make deals about giving each other a positive evaluation.
There is nothing wrong with an Innovation Award in itself if it benefits research, but if you want to engender competition with it, the assessment has to be objective and come from a neutral party. I thoroughly approve of a prize like the Annual Academic Prize, with which Wageningen UR can put itself in the limelight.
Of course this kind of Innovation Award can have a very stimulating effect and it represents a bit of appreciation. I still cherish a prize I won together with Meike te Giffel, one of our former PhD students, for an article in the Dutch Journal of Veterinary Medicine. I doubt whether there were very many entries, but it is still nice. Actually we should have a lot more of these sorts of prizes in the Netherlands.'
Lucas Noldus, director of the Wageningen spin off Noldus Information Technology
'It's a good initiative. Of course people should deliver good work without 'awards', but prizes for special achievements provide a nice additional stimulus. There is too little attention to innovation in the allocation of research funding: projects have to generate new knowledge but as soon as the results get too close to application the work often does not qualify for any grants, thanks to government funding regulations. And that is a pity, because it means too many research results stay unused on the bookshelves. An Innovation Award could spur researcher on to take that one step further, for example to find a company that can market the results, and also to contribute actively to passing on the knowledge.'

Cees Leeuwis, professor of Communication and Innovation Studies

'The crux of the matter is: what do we understand by innovation? All too often we think only in terms of technical innovations with commercial potential. Inventions, in other words. That is a limited and outdated definition of innovation. I would reward the social impact of research. Wageningen advises farmers in Africa on how they can improve the management of their irrigation systems. That is innovation too, but not the kind you can sell through taking out a patent. Another example: for an invention to succeed you often need new rules of the game and organizational forms - they make up the innovation along with the technology. Without these regulations a new kind of seed doesn't reach the market. Policy advice to the minister which leads to a new law can also constitute a real contribution to innovation. So I argue for a broad definition of innovation. Reward social impact.'
Jan Meiling, who organized a Business Challenge at the Plant Sciences Group
'With the business challenge we wanted to get good ideas from within the organization for generating new business. People responded to our appeal with 32 ideas. A selection committee invited those who came up with six of them to a half-day workshop to develop their plan further. An important factor was that we had external coaches to support the researchers, and there were also investors in the jury. The winner they chose was the plan for the marine farm, developed by a group led by Willem Brandenburg. They received 25,000 euros from the PSG to take it further. All the participants benefit by getting the chance to draw attention to their ideas. Two of the six ideas that were developed have now attracted interest from investors.
And we are still working on a number of the plans that didn't get through, because they contained some nice elements too. For example, Biometris came up with the idea of setting up a desk for evaluating genetic data as a service to the business world. Some of these individual ideas certainly have business potential. Other science groups want to hold a Business Challenge too, but I do not think we should repeat it at Wageningen UR level. What I could imagine would be that each science group inventories and selects ideas. Then, when they have been developed,  you can compete in a follow-up phase in a WUR-wide competition for fully-fledged business concepts. Otherwise you just duplicate things. But there should certainly be a follow-up. Participants were very enthusiastic because they learnt to look at their research in a new way.
Text: Roelof Kleis, Albert Sikkema, Hans Wolkers, Gaby van Caulil

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