Mariana Mazzucato: greed holding back, not helping, vaccine drive

Boris Johnson ‘completely wrong’ about vaccine success, while UK industrial strategy vacillation ‘reeks of insecurity’, innovation expert tells THE summit

April 19, 2021
Boris Johnson in lab
Source: Getty

Boris Johnson’s suggestion that “capitalism” and “greed” drove the success of the UK’s Covid vaccination roll-out was “completely wrong”, as the programme was rooted in public-private research collaboration and the factors he praised were in fact preventing full completion of the vaccine “mission”, according to Mariana Mazzucato.

The UCL economist and innovation expert spoke at the Times Higher Education Innovation & Impact Summit, held remotely, where she also said the UK’s vacillating approach to industrial strategy “reeks of insecurity” over the role of government in the economy.

Mr Johnson, the UK prime minister, generated controversy when he was reported to have told Conservative MPs on a video call last month: “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.” He is also said to have quickly withdrawn the remarks, which some present on the call suggested were an attempted joke.

Professor Mazzucato said that there had been a “huge amount of public investment” in vaccine research, with drug companies only coming in at the “back end” of development.

“The high-risk capital investment phase was almost solely publicly financed,” she added.

The next key goal was for vaccines to be made “universally accessible”, as in a global pandemic any countries or regions remaining without access posed a risk to the rest of the world, she argued.

That raised a need for “patent pooling” by drug companies to “share as much knowledge as possible”, thus putting “public value, public purpose” at the heart of further vaccine development, said Professor Mazzucato, who is professor of the economics of innovation and public value at UCL.

Mr Johnson had “got it completely wrong”, she argued. “Public and private collaboration got us it [vaccines] – and greed has held us back in actually achieving the mission.”

At the THE event, Professor Mazzucato also addressed her role advising the Theresa May government on its development of an industrial strategy – a strategy recently abandoned by the Johnson government, which says it will launch a successor “innovation strategy” in June.

The UK’s approach to industrial strategy “reeks of insecurity”, Professor Mazzucato said, highlighting the multiplicity of name changes in the government department responsible for research and innovation, currently known as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The government now prefers “to call it an innovation policy”, but it is “still talking about” the kind of “mission-oriented innovation” she advocated, Professor Mazzucato said. “Those teams [working on the strategy in BEIS] are still there, but because of ideological reasons they prefer to call it something else. That is a problem.”

She continued: “The discussion here [in the UK] just seems to constantly worry about: ‘Oh, this isn’t about picking winners. Oh, this isn’t really about industrial strategy.’ Well then, what is it? Call it what you want, but stick with a stable plan.”

Industry investment relied on “certainty” and “this constant stop-start…I don’t think it is useful to anyone”, Professor Mazzucato added.

She said the success of industrial or innovation strategy comes through a “targeted but intersectional approach”, in which there is a drive to “pick the problems”, such as clean growth, then “galvanise and crowd in as many sectors as possible”. Funding should not come for subsidy but for transformation, she argued, highlighting the way the German government had incentivised its steel industry to become “modern, green and sustainable”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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