What the coronavirus vaccine roll-out says about innovation in an age of geopolitical rivalry

A girl takes a picture of artificial full moons installed at a park as a wish to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and celebrate the Chuseok holiday, the Korean Thanksgiving Day, in Seoul, South Korea, on September 21, 2020. While national rivalries fostered innovation during the Cold War space race, they can also stymie it. Photo: Reuters



Covid-19 has resulted in loss of life and livelihoods while deepening political fault lines and exposing governance shortcomings. Emerging from the economic upheaval of the pandemic will be the next great policy challenge. Industries like tourism and education are among those affected most by the crisis.

Reviving decimated industries calls for proactive and stimulatory policy intervention of the type adopted after the global financial crisis and the Great Depression. This imperative underscores the crucial role governments play in supporting industrial growth, including that led by innovation.

The release of Bloomberg’s 2021 global innovation index offers insights into how such a policy might take shape. The index ranks 60 countries across metrics including per capita research and development expenditure, manufacturing value added, tertiary education (universities), number of hi-tech companies, concentration of people holding research positions, and per capita issuance of patents.

The rankings reveal some notable trends. Two Asian countries – South Korea and Singapore – took the top spots. Four rather small European countries – Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland – are in the top 10, while the US dropped out of the top 10 (it had the top rank in 2013). China ranks 16th, the UK 18th, Australia 19th and India 50th.

Innovation, R&D and global competition have become salient issues during the Covid-19 crisis. For example, scientists have worked quickly but with incomplete information to understand epidemiological forces and develop vaccines.

Success in this endeavour favour firms and countries holding existing advantages in R&D and research capacity. Those rolling out vaccines now in widest use are the US (Moderna), Germany (Pfizer BioNTech), Britain (AstraZeneca) and China (Sinopharm) – all populous countries that are home to multinational corporations and globally competitive universities.

Nevertheless, only one of these vaccine leaders (Germany in fourth place) occupies the top 10 of the 2021 global innovation index. One upshot is that success in vaccine development may reflect not only the sophistication of domestic research ecosystems but also a statistical reality: many vaccines are tested but few are proven effective.

Thus, countries with higher concentrations of pharmaceutical and biotech firms have more hands on deck. When solutions are needed urgently in times of crises, a “crash the gates” mentality favours the volume as much as the substance of ideas.

Other high-innovation industries are rarely under such an urgent existential mandate as pharmaceuticals during a pandemic.

What does vaccine roll-out say about a 21st century heading towards geopolitical repositioning as countries vie for superpower status? National rivalries can, in some ways, foster productive innovation, as exhibited in the Cold War space race. A similar dynamic is now emerging between the US and China over the development of AI technologies.

At the same time, the inward turn resulting from geopolitical competition works against the process of innovation – an activity enhanced by information access and exchange.

For example, concerns about intellectual property protection and efforts to cultivate diplomatic loyalties through vaccine provision can obstruct the type of cross-border collaboration needed for this truly global crisis.

The pertinent question, then, is: innovation for what purpose? Do the world’s superpowers see innovation as a way to produce universal solutions (for example, vaccines and “smart” capabilities) or as an opportunity to score political points concerning national or ideological superiority?

The assertion of soft power through vaccine diplomacy is evident in efforts by the United States, China and Russia to distribute vaccines globally. As such, the pursuit of geopolitical supremacy through innovation can be seen either as a welcome boost to research or as a cynically transactional indulgence without staying power.

The leaders of the 2021 global innovation index – South Korea, Singapore and small wealthy European countries – arguably have less ambition for global power and influence that the US, China and Russia do.

A sanguine reading would suggest that the danger of politicising innovation is low in these small but innovative countries – good news for society’s reliance on new technologies, as innovative ideas do not come solely from global superpowers.

At the same time, as Covid-19 has shown, solutions to emergent crises needing rapid biotechnical and pharmaceutical innovation often come from a small group of influential countries.

At a higher level, policy responses to each successive global crisis can be interpreted as reproductions of existing power dynamics. The same powerful countries assert their supremacy, no matter what the issue.

Whether in AI, pandemics or financial crises, the prospects of a geopolitically fragmented world working in unison seem to be declining – despite various global agreements and protocols.

Optimists argue that geopolitical tensions are the competitive drive behind innovation, particularly through the (siloed) multi-sourcing of innovation capacity that ensures systemic resilience. However, the world abandons the synergistic effects of collaboration when it sees innovation as a geopolitical exercise.

For the sake of our future prosperity and stability, we need governments to depoliticise their pandemic response – domestically and internationally.

Asit K. Biswas is a visiting professor at the University of Glasgow. Kris Hartley is an assistant professor in public policy at the Education University of Hong Kong.

This article was published by SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, June 30, 2021.