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Isomorphic Differences: Familiarity and Distinctiveness in National Science and Innovation Policies

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sciences
Wordcount: 5024 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Introduction: National science and innovation policies appear strikingly similar on a number of dimensions, including preferred principles of clustering and partnership, an emphasis on ‘smart growth’ (Mazzucato, 2016) and a focus on ‘hot topics’ such as biotechnology and big data. Is this a pervasive homogeneity or are countries and regions strategically distinguished? This project will conduct a comparative analysis of science and innovation policy-making in China, Denmark and USA. Within and across these nations, it focuses on the balance between duplication (or isomorphism) and difference in policy-making. What is their relationship across national science and innovation policies? What is the direction of policy change? Such questions are of considerable importance in terms of enhancing our understanding of global governance systems and national strategic capabilities: and also in informing national and international policy making (see letter of endorsement from J. Oddershede). How are nations to strike the best balance between ‘following the global crowd’ and ‘setting a distinctive direction’?

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State-of-the art: Three lines of literature are important for this study. First, National Systems of Innovation (NSI) addresses the flow of technology and information among people, organizations and institutions in innovation processes (Lundvall, 1992; Nelson and Rosenberg, 1993; Patel and Pavitt, 1994). Synthesizing numerous studies, Edquist suggests that an innovation system includes “all important economic, social, political, organizational, institutional (…) factors that influence the development, diffusion and use of innovations” (Edquist, 1997: 14). Innovation policies are among the most important institutional factors in shaping the direction and rate of change (Laranja et al., 2008). Accordingly, the role of the State and extra-national bodies such as the EU is viewed as central for the performance of national and regional innovation systems (Uyarra & Flanagan, 2010, Castellacci and Natera, 2013).

Second, Science Policy and Innovation Studies (SPIS) investigates the theory and practice of science and innovation policies (McNie et al., 2016; Martin, 2012). A current “hot topic” within SPIS is the relationship between science, technology and innovation policies, economic competitiveness and productivity growth (Lane et al., 2015; Prettner and Werner, 2016; Yu et al., 2017). The impact of innovation policies is suggested to be dependent on four dimensions: objectives, instruments, implementation and impact assessment (Christensen et al., 2016). However, policies are often ‘policy mixes’ with internal interactions, inconsistencies and trade-offs, reflecting a messy, multi-level, and multi-actor reality (Flanagan et al., 2011). Adoption of singular policy elements such as clustering may be related to institutional diffusion of ‘best practices’ despite the lack of clear supporting evidence (Uyarra and Ramlogan, 2017). To supplement studies of single policy instruments, broader comparisons of policy mixes and instruments are needed (Martin, 2016).

Finally, Science and Technology Studies (STS) explores the ways in which large concepts and perspectives on science, technology and innovation are specifically given shape  (Nowotny et al., 2001; Godin, 2017) and translated into particular policies and localized practices (Godin, 2006; Irwin, 2006). Studies in this more qualitative and ‘contextual’ tradition are characteristically concerned with the micro-processes of policy formation (see for example, Borrás and Seabrooke, 2015; Brickman et al., 1985; Campbell and Pedersen, 2014; Guston, 1999; Jasanoff, 2004; Magro et al., 2014; Vogel, 1986) and interweave questions of political culture, socio-technical relations and ‘nation-building’ with the examination of policy-making (Horst and Irwin, 2010). Such work also draws attention to the important differences, and more subtle socio-technical processes, which can underlie apparent similarities of terminology and practice (eg ‘triple helix’, ‘NSI’, ‘innovation ecosystems’). Nevertheless, there is no systematic comparison or in-depth investigation of similarities and differences across cases or nations.

From these three lines of literature it is clear that innovation systems and innovation policies and their implementation are crucial to innovation processes. However, we argue here the need to address a double gap in current understanding: firstly, how science and innovation policies are developed and combined across regions and nations, and, secondly, how they are practically adopted, translated and implemented within specific policy contexts. We seek to fill this gap by: a) focusing on the dissemination and uptake of concepts, practices and policies in specific national settings, and b) comparing across three different contexts: the USA, Denmark and China.

Research focus: This proposal employs the concept of ‘isomorphic difference’ as a means of analyzing international research and innovation policies. ‘Isomorphism’ here refers to patterns of cross-national convergence. ‘Difference’ meanwhile addresses matters of cultural and epistemic uniqueness concerning national research and innovation traditions, institutions and capacities. Our central research question is: What is the balance between isomorphism and difference in each of the three national research and innovation strategies – and how is that balance changing over time?

Analytical framework: The concept of ‘isomorphic difference’ directly builds upon and extends two specific bodies of theory. First, institutional theories of organization, which focus upon the influence of external and internal pressures on organizations and institutions, and the ways these pressures may lead to isomorphic field patterns (Zucker, 1987). We will employ the distinction between coercive, mimetic and normative isomorphic processes (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) and investigate how these may have consequences for the institutionalization of certain ideas and rationalities, and for changes in these. It is specifically important to investigate the strategies of relevant actors vis-à-vis such isomorphic processes and to analyze the degree to which organizational and national tasks and activities are shielded from isomorphic pressures through decoupling (Meyer and Rowan, 1977) or actively shaped through institutional entrepreneurship (Garud, Hardy and Maguire, 2007; Battilana, Leca and Boxenbaum, 2009).

Second, the STS concept of ‘socio-technical imaginary’ proposed by Jasanoff and Kim in a study of the development of policies for nuclear power in South Korea and the US. Socio-technical imaginaries were in this context defined as “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009: 121; see also Jasanoff and Kim, 2015; McNeil et al, 2017). To account for the micro-dynamics of policy-making, we will supplement ‘socio-technical imaginary’ with the methodologically-oriented notion of ‘ethno-epistemic assemblages’ previously developed by the PI to analyze science-society relations in context (Irwin and Michael, 2003). In this project, we will employ ‘isomorphism’ as a means of identifying and analyzing common trends across nations. ‘Socio-technical imaginary’ and ‘ethno-epistemic assemblages’ will focus analytical attention on the contextual specificities, countervailing processes and underlying ‘differences’ in policy and practice.

We will be guided by three hypotheses: H1: that the global trend is towards greater isomorphism as more nations develop their scientific and policy capacities and participate in global networks. We will examine the evidence for the repeated usage across national contexts of similar policy justifications, models of intervention and projections of a future ‘research-led’ society. H2: that of the three forms of isomorphism proposed in DiMaggio and Powell’s classic paper, mimetic and normative forms are of special significance. We will analyze the sources of isomorphism across contexts: including direct political influence (coercive), standard responses to socio-technical and economic uncertainty (mimetic), and the impact of professional networks, academic exchange and collaborative institutions (normative). H3: that significant national differences still exist despite overall patterns of isomorphism. We will specifically investigate ‘isomorphic differences’ i.e. the significant national variations which occur within broadly-isomorphic systems of governance.

Empirical focus and analytical approach: Through four Work Packages (WP1-4) this project will examine and compare three national contexts. Denmark represents a small, advanced nation and member of the European Union. The USA is a major player in terms of international science and innovation strategies. China is a powerful but also fast-developing nation and an important indicator of the future direction of science and innovation policies.

In WP1-3, we will analyze four empirical dimensions within each nation: (1) overall innovation objectives (e.g. ‘solving Grand Challenges’, addressing societal goals and ambitions) and models regarding state-university-industry relations (eg the need for greater ‘alignment’ across institutions: Vedel and Irwin, 2017); (2) policy instruments, including incentives and infrastructures; (3) selected focus areas and prioritization of future research ‘winners’ (e.g. nanotechnology); and (4) evaluation and impact assessment tools. Each dimension will be investigated both at ‘national level’ and through a case study in order to determine the degree to which national elements are implemented in practice and form coherent patterns. In WP4, the national patterns will be compared across the three nations, identifying dimensions of similarity and difference, and analyzing drivers of isomorphism and exceptionalism.





Innovation objectives and models




Policy instruments, incentives and infrastructures




Selectivity and concentration – “hot topics”




Evaluation and impact assessments




Similarities and differences


WP1-3 explore the isomorphic-difference relationship in two ways. First, through intensive analysis of research and innovation policies and associated documents, institutional structures and initiatives, policy statements and the views of key stakeholders (10 interviews will be conducted in the Danish case, 15 interviews in the US and in the Chinese cases). The focus will be on past and current policies, practical initiatives and patterns of implementation: and also on the drivers for change. Second, through investigation of one case of ‘big science’ collaboration within each country. Drawing on a variation of the established methodology of ‘controversy studies’ (Nelkin, 1992), which involves intensive focus on particular illustrative examples as a means of identifying larger patterns, the cases will be studied through documentary analyses and interviews with key informants (10 interviews in each of the three countries). Attention here will be on what these big science cases reveal about the changing character of research and innovation policy in each country. How is such significant public expenditure justified and what do these justifications reveal about the national ‘socio-technical imaginary’ of future societal and scientific change? All interviews will be transcribed and analysed using NVivo.

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Work Package 1: Denmark (months 0-12). Irwin will have primary responsibility for data collection and analysis. Vedel and Vikkelsø will provide additional expertise and support. Hansen will join the project after six months in order to facilitate the comparative element of this project. Due to the team’s existing knowledge of the Danish research and innovation system, this case will be conducted in 12 months and the number of interviews is slightly reduced. National data will be collected from key institutions:including, The Ministry of Higher Education and Science (UFM), the Danish Agency for Science and Higher Education, Innovation Fund Denmark, and the Confederation of Danish Industry. The selected ‘big science’ case study will be the European Spallation Source (ESS) currently under construction as the world’s most powerful neutron source but also a means of addressing key societal challenges through scientific investment. Of a total construction cost of €1.9 billion, Denmark will pay 12,5%. The ESS Data Management and Software Centre is housed in Denmark.

Work Package 2: The US case (months 6-30). This project will be run by the PhD fellow, under supervision from Irwin, who will also participate in data collection and analysis. National data will be compiled with attention to major institutions across a decentralized and diverse policy system: including the National Science Board, National Institutes of Health, National Academies and House/Senate Appropriations Committees. The ‘big science’ case will be the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) (including the NNI Strategic Plan 2014). The NNI was established in 2001 in order to coordinate federal R&D policies and activities in this emerging area and with the purpose of advancing a world-class and ‘responsible’ R&D programme. The cumulative NNI investment since fiscal year 2001, including the 2015 request, totals almost $21 billion.

Work package 3: The Chinese case (months 12-36). This project will be run by the postdoc (Hansen). Shen will provide guidance and participate in data collection and analysis. Irwin will assist with research support and coordination. National data will be collected with attention to the development from the principle of ‘walking on two legs’ at the inception of China’s economic reform through The National Medium and Long-term Program for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020) to today’s policies. Key institutions will include CAS-ISD, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development. The ‘big science case’ will be BGI: The Beijing Genomics Institute founded in 1989, which is today the world’s largest sequencing unit with over 5000 staff. BGI has received a loan of $1.5 billion in ‘collaborative funds’ from the China Development Bank over 10 years. It now has corporate status with the support of the National Development of Reform Commission aimed at providing a powerful platform for all genomic research.

Work package 4: Comparative analysis, synthesis and final outputs (months 30-42). The entire team will cross-reference data and key findings throughout the project: through monthly team meetings, participation across cases, joint preparation of draft reports, presentations and publications. This is also a key aspect of project management and a particular responsibility for the PI. In WP4, we will focus specifically on patterns of isomorphism and exceptionalism across the three national cases: assisted by the preparation of final outputs which specifically address this comparative dimension. In so doing, we will also identify the national differences which persist within otherwise-isomorphic systems and consider their larger analytical and practical significance. In addition to interview transcription, the translation to English of 10 hours of selected material from the Chinese interviews will further facilitate comparative analysis (the majority of the research team, including the PI, can work in both Danish and English).

Timeline: We anticipate a start-date of August 2018 for the project.

Management and organization: The team behind this application consists of five designated persons plus a PhD fellow. Alan Irwin (PI) will be overall responsible for the project and involved in all four WPs. Alan Irwin has internationally recognized expertise in science and technology policy as well as considerable experience with research management. He has previously conducted research in a US and Danish context. Xiaobai Shen has substantial expertise in Chinese research and innovation policy and a strong network of relations in China. Jane Bjørn Vedel has extensive knowledge of research and innovation studies and particular expertise in the Danish research and innovation system. Signe Vikkelsø brings a strong background in organization theory and history of organizational forms. A post doc fellow (Louise Lyngfeldt Gorm Hansen) will be appointed with experience of conductingempirical research in China (she has recently submitted a PhD on Chinese industry and environment policy). A PhD fellow will be appointed following an open call with special expertise in the US system.

International cooperation and support will be offered by an International Advisory Board: including Professor Rongping Mu, Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Chinese innovation policy); Professor Maria Nedeva, University of Manchester (research policy and organization); Professor Dan Sarewitz, Arizona State University (science and technology policy); Professor Robin Williams, University of Edinburgh (innovation policy). The Board will have a particular role in helping synthesize research findings and facilitating the comparative dimension of the project.

Publication and dissemination plan: There are two key milestones (M1-2) for the project as a whole: M1: the comparative analysis of Denmark and US (after 18 months) and M2: the comparison of all nations (after 30 months).

There will be three advisory board meetings: one after 6 months to reflect on the Danish case and introduce the project as a whole, the other two following the above comparative milestones and to assist in project synthesis. The second meeting will be conducted through Skype (or similar).

In addition, we will organize two workshops to present, discuss and disseminate our findings. These will involve both academic and policy stakeholders and represent an important means of sharpening the impact and larger relevance of our project. 

We will publish at least four co-authored papers and also a PhD thesis. Paper 1 (working title: ‘Isomorphic differences in research and innovation policy’) to be submitted to Research Policy. Paper 2 (working title: ‘Similarity and difference in US and DK research and innovation policies’) to be submitted to Science and Public Policy. Paper 3 (working title ‘A comparative analysis of forms of organizing innovation in Denmark, the United States and China’) to be submitted to Organization Studies. Paper 4 (working title: ‘Isomorphic difference: an overview of recent research’) to be submitted to Science, Technology, & Human Values.

Ethical aspects: We will operate fully in accordance with CBS and national guidelines.

Access: Based on our previous experience and existing research networks, we foresee no access issues relating to Denmark and the USA. In addition, further advice and support will be available (as necessary) from the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University (see letter of endorsement). Although China can be a more challenging environment for empirical research, Hansen and Shen have particular experience in collecting Chinese materials. The project will also benefit from a collaborative link with the Institutes of Science and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (see letter of endorsement).


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