Funding: Why innovation needs to be more broadly defined

It is an easy claim to make that the strategic policy positions of countries include investments in innovation. A scan of policies worldwide shows a plethora of systems of science and innovation.

See, for instance: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Reviews of Innovation Policy; the European Innovation Scoreboard; the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) Reviews; the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024; Innovation Systems of Latin American and the Caribbean; and the Global Innovation Index.

In addition to these policies, international funding that complements mainstream public revenue allocations is often specifically ring-fenced for catalytic innovation programmes. Innovation is their raison d’être.

Different nations who give or receive funding coalesce around innovation, but with different definitions of it. Even with a central policy position on innovation, the term signals different points of emphasis, depending on who is formulating the innovation.

Higher education third-stream incomes, for instance, are firmly focused on researchers delivering innovation outcomes and impact.

It may be argued that such an expectation is appropriate given that universities are considered to be at the apex of creating and preserving scholarship, with academics, and their research, as the custodians of creating and confirming knowledge, erudition and original insights.

Interestingly, a 2020 article by Blaise Bayuo, Christina Chaminade and Bo Göransson, which systematically reviewed social innovation, which might well be seen as the equivalent of the glue for all forms of innovation, indicated that, for instance, social innovation is not robustly defined or practised in universities.

The authors state that “[there are] growing fields of study but also ... large gaps in the knowledge base”. They indicate that while there are centres or hubs of innovation, these are often named as such, yet remain narrowly focused without fully addressing the mainstreamed proliferation of innovation throughout universities as institutions.

Funding and innovation

Funding calls, on the other hand, strongly reference innovation and, when analysed, show that a beneficiary could not hope to secure funding without being highly differentiated and very clear on the innovation element of their funding ‘pitch’.

Innovation, in these contexts, does tend towards technology transfer or ‘from lab to market’ and is associated with the so-called ‘hard’ innovation of ‘goods and services’, which suits some disciplinary areas far more than others.

In my work with funding initiatives, I have dug deep to assist colleagues from, for example, theology or literature, and even music and mathematics to formulate ideas on innovation that would meet funders’ requirements.

Universities themselves promote novelty, fresh ideas that signal change, original thinking in a disciplinary and theoretical manner, yet are often hard-pressed to translate and convert the academic ‘take’ on innovation to that which funders emphasise and require.

This presents a conundrum in facilitating grant preparation programmes for university staff. These staff are indeed vigilant and immersed in scholarly ingenuity, which calls for pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, yet with such innovation confined to portals such as academic journals and conferences, where such ruptures remain mainly theoretical and epistemological.

‘Niche within a niche’

In the 25 years of working with funding for research and related projects, certain strategies have proved promising. Central to these strategies is positioning innovation widely.

This includes terms that remind grant proposers of ‘social and-or inclusive innovation’, ‘social ecosystems’ and ‘frugal innovation’, to be considered alongside the ‘harder’ views on innovation.

European Union funding, in particular, provides useful concepts such as ‘pathfinding innovation’ or ‘innovation pathways’, which tend towards the processes and potential of innovative activities.

Additionally, university staff, in grant writing fora, are asked first to define their research agendas broadly and then stringently to delineate and segment them from the broader agenda, outlining the niche area for which they intend to apply for funding, or, more realistically, what funders are calling for.

Hyperion Ireland has done a great service to the university sector by upping the ante even more, requiring proposers to think of a ‘niche within a niche’, which is a vivid concept for academics who are used to niche thinking, but need to push themselves further.

Of late, the European Union has increasingly emphasised ‘creativity’ in their public discussions of what they desire to fund, a refreshing milestone for those of us who have often felt that we are drowning within the linear logic of log frame thinking.

While we often seem to take it for granted that academics embrace innovation as being close to their daily knowledge projects, the applied articulation of it often presents both substantive and ‘word-smithing’ boundaries.

As a facilitator, I feel that there has to be a strong push beyond the scholarly conferences and publication ‘innovation’ so that academics think through and express innovation and its impact in relation to societal, applied and policy arenas.

There is often a collective effort in the grant funding fora to find heuristics that mutually facilitate how to think creatively within the innovation cycle.

One of the sources that both surprises and delights, for instance, is “creative engineering”. The late John E Arnold, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, crafted “Creative Engineering: Promoting Innovation by Thinking Differently” which was published in the open domain in 2016.

These previously archived seminars, based on the philosophy of engineering design, provide an insightful source for both ‘call for proposal’ writers as well as grant proposers.

How to spark innovation

Notwithstanding the strategies noted above, there is still a central and age-old question about how to craft or spark innovation.

Often universities are inherently conservative, with academics being tentative and conceptually diffident about their work, and yet, the pressure for securing third-stream income impels the ‘production’ of innovation.

In a recent seminar, there was even a definitive statement made that researchers must be both entrepreneurs and innovators.

As one of the innovation ‘touts’ out there, I often feel ideologically challenged in proclaiming that innovation is non-negotiable to source a grant. It begs the question that in asking for a certain type of innovation, are we not denying genuine innovation?

By this I mean that true spark of innovation, born of the ‘slow burn’ of thinking, or genuine and deep conceptual collaboration, which is often impossible or too conceptually risky to argue in response to those ‘neat’ funding prompts.

Dr Charmaine Williamson is a grant consultant to various universities. Williamson has managed projects for national and regional research programmes inclusive of the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), as well as the Conflict and Governance Facility and the Parliamentary Support Programme, both partnership programmes of the EU and South Africa. In addition, Williamson has been contracted to do capacity-development around Calls for Proposals, under the auspices of a number of EU delegations in Southern Africa.