“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” Europe should take this astute statement by the writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry to heart. Instead, in the European Union, we too often adopt an attitude that does not enable the future, but hinders it.
An attitude that views globalization and competition not as catalysts and drivers of prosperity, but as threats. That seeks to defend past achievements rather than pursue new opportunities. This kind of climate does not help innovation thrive and inventors flourish. And as it also poses a risk to our prosperity in Europe, it burdens and challenges our continent. We need a prosperous Europe and we must not jeopardize the successes of European unity.
Europe is deeply skeptical of technological advances. In the “Technik-Radar 2018” survey undertaken in Germany, only one quarter of those surveyed held the opinion that technology solves more problems than it creates.
Europe is losing ground as a center of innovation and conceding technological progress to others.
CEO of Bayer
As a result of this skepticism about technology, Europe is losing ground as a center of innovation and conceding technological progress to others. When it comes to artificial intelligence, Europe is being left behind by the United States and China.
The situation is no better in another groundbreaking field: CRISPR/Cas and other new breeding technologies. With the help of this advancement, conventional breeding can be supplemented and in some cases replaced by much faster and more precise methods. We could breed plants that produce a higher yield or are more resilient in drought conditions. These technologies could help feed our growing population and make more efficient use of natural resources, while also limiting the impact of climate change.
Europe is well-positioned to play a leading role in this field – but a recent decision by the European Court of Justice stands in the way. Last year the court decided that CRISPR/Cas and similar methods must be classified as genetic engineering and regulated according to the same stringent standards. This promising technology is therefore at risk of being driven abroad. There is no objective reason to so stringently regulate plants bred this way. They do not contain any foreign genes and are no different from traditionally bred plants.
The ball is now in the politicians’ court. It is their task to create the legal framework that makes it possible to further develop this technology in Europe. Otherwise the message to the rest of the world will once again be that we have no ambitions of playing a role.
What needs to happen?
So what needs to happen to ensure that Europe once again becomes a leading, competitive center of innovation? Three things should be at the very top of the agenda.
First: Brexit. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union is a major setback for the EU’s innovation capability. After all, the United Kingdom is one of Europe’s most innovative countries. The EU needs to strive to achieve the closest possible integration with the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit future – not just economically, but also in science and research.
Second: venture capital. The United States has shown everyone how it’s done. Venture capital is extremely important when it comes to turning scientific findings and ideas into successful companies. Other regions, including Europe, are catching up – but the gap remains significant. Venture capital investment totaled €63.8 billion in the United States in 2017 – in Europe it was just €15.6 billion. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from these numbers: Europe must do more to ensure that the implementation of promising ideas doesn’t fail for lack of money.
Third, and this is the most important point: What Europe needs most is a cultural transformation and a change in mindset. We need to abandon our discouraging fixation on potential risks and move toward a courageous, purposeful culture of opportunities and possibilities.
Of course, it is good and right for technological progress to be accompanied by a comprehensive and critical public debate. Yet it is crucial that this debate is conducted objectively and that regulatory decisions are taken on the basis of sound scientific findings. Unfortunately, we are currently a long way from this ideal in the EU. Debates are emotionally charged and often have little to do with the current state of expertise. This stokes fear. That fear is reflected in restrictive regulations that do not help, but rather hinder, technological advances.
The most important achievement of humanity over the past decades and centuries would likely never have been possible with this attitude. We have escaped from misery. In 1800, average global life expectancy was 31 years – today it is 72. In 1970, 28 percent of the population still suffered from hunger. Today this number is just 11 percent.
Wouldn’t it be tremendous to finally achieve victory over diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s?
This is a triumph of the Enlightenment, an idea that originally arose in Europe. It placed the potential of people and science on center stage. It’s a tradition that we should maintain today: a Europe of science and technology, a Europe of inventors who gave the world the printing press and the piano, the microscope and the steam engine, antibiotics and cars, the airbag and the mp3 player – and the place where the world’s first computer was built.
But we can also achieve great things in the future: Wouldn’t it be tremendous to finally achieve victory over diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s – just as we did with smallpox, which was eradicated in 1977? Or to eliminate hunger, which still plagues 800 million people around the world? We don’t know whether we will ever be successful in this endeavor because we cannot predict the future. But we can enable it – for more and more people.