Innovation Scoreboard, Italy lags behind in Europe (but there is some good news)

Mattia Ceracchi
Foto di Michal Jarmoluk da Pixabay

On 23 June, the European Commission published the Innovation Scoreboard for 2020, the ranking of EU countries’ research and innovation performance. Results are broadly in line with those of previous years, with the Union as a whole strengthening its innovation capacity compared to the beginning of the decade, but continuing to lose positions to the major global competitors. The Eastern European countries (especially the Baltic countries) have accelerated their growth and begun to reduce the internal European R&I divide, while Italy – although showing a positive trend during the decade – has confirmed its structural weaknesses in research and innovation, a factor that has been widely known for years. This is all further material for reflection, both at national and European levels, in view of the definition of the Recovery Plan proposed by the Commission at the end of May.


Promoted by the European Commission, the European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS) each year carries out a comparative assessment of research and innovation performance in the EU Member States, other European countries and EU neighbouring countries. It provides an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of national R&I systems, the progress achieved over the years and – this is the ultimate objective of the scoreboard – the sectors to be focused on for public intervention to increase innovation.

The Scoreboard has been developed taking into account 27 performance indicators, distinguishing ten specific areas of innovation in four macro-categories (general context, investments, innovation activities and impacts). They range from classic indicators, such as the number of graduates aged between 25 and 34 and the percentage of public investment in R&D in relation to GDP, to the more specific, such as the number of companies that provide vocational training to develop or update the digital skills of their employees. The index covers the countries of the European area, but also compares, albeit on the basis of a more limited number of indicators, the performance of the EU with its most important competitors (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, the Russian Federation, South Africa, South Korea and the United States).


The 2020 Scoreboard does not present big surprises and overall confirms the trends of recent years. The leading group consists of the Scandinavian countries (in order, Sweden, Finland and Denmark) and the Netherlands and Luxembourg – the “innovation leaders” – which perform significantly better than the European average. The second group, the strong innovators, showing innovation performance above or close to the EU average, includes Austria, Belgium, France and Germany, as well as three countries on the European periphery (Estonia, Ireland and Portugal). This is followed by the group of “moderate innovators”, which includes the countries whose performance is below the European average – the Euro-Mediterranean bloc (Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Spain), the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary) and the other two Baltic republics (Latvia and Lithuania). Bulgaria and Romania, which have an innovation performance of less than 50% of the EU average, close the ranking.

It is clear from the ranking that the countries with good overall performance also show excellent performance in most specific areas of innovation. However, there is no lack of positive surprises, with some strong and moderate innovators excelling in individual areas. It is not particularly surprising that Luxembourg, followed by Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, continues to lead the ranking in terms of the attractiveness of research systems (openness to cooperation with foreign partners, excellent international networking opportunities for their researchers, excellent quality of research results). On the other hand, it may be significant that Portugal leads the way in innovation in small and medium-sized enterprises, due to the large number of SMEs developing innovative products and processes and introducing organisational and marketing innovations. Also noteworthy are the top positions of Austria and Belgium in terms of connections and collaborations within the innovation ecosystem, due to the high propensity of companies in these countries to collaborate with other public and private partners and the high rate of private co-financing for public research activities.

Looking in more detail at the evolution of the ranking over the years, it emerges that the Union has strengthened its performance overall in terms of innovation. For the EU as a whole, the index measures an improvement of 8.9% between 2012 and 2019. 24 Member States are now making progress compared to seven years ago, Slovenia and Romania being the only countries lagging significantly behind, while Germany remains broadly in line with its 2012 performance. The performance of Lithuania, Malta, Latvia, Portugal, Latvia and Greece is remarkable, reaching an increase of more than 20 percentage points compared to the beginning of the decade, a significant figure if read in the light of the objective of reducing the R&I gap within the EU, one of the most reiterated guidelines of European R&I policies in recent years. Compared to single indicators, the most important improvements for the EU as a whole are in broadband penetration and in the investment category, particularly regarding non-R&D innovation expenditure and venture capital investment.

Comparing the EU and its major global competitors, it can be seen that the Union continues to maintain an advantage in terms of performance over emerging economies (Brazil, South Africa, India) and over the United States and China (with the European score at 100, and the US and China at 96 and 92 points, respectively). South Korea remains the most innovative country, with a performance 34% higher than the EU score in 2019 (followed by Canada, Australia and Japan). But the picture of the 2020 performance tells only part of the story, as the decade trend sees the EU losing positions both to the leading countries and to its pursuers. Since 2012, South Korea, Australia and Japan have increased their performance advantage over the EU, while the gap between the EU and the US, China, Brazil, Russia and South Africa has narrowed. Compared to the early 2010s, China has had the largest increase in innovation capacity (+17.3%), with a growth rate more than five times higher than that of the EU over the same period (+3%). And although far from the Chinese acceleration, Japan (+8%), Russia (+6.7%), the United States (+4.9%), Brazil (+4.7%), Australia (+3.5%) and South Africa (+4.6%) have also recorded a higher rate of performance increase than the EU since 2012.


Italy is in 18th place in the ranking, in the group of moderate innovators, scoring 83 points (the European average was 100 in 2019). The positive news comes from the trend over the decade, with Italian R&I performance improving by 11.8% compared to 2012 (a rate slightly higher than the EU average). Taking the EU average value in 2012 (100) as a reference, it can be seen that improvements have mainly occurred over the last two years, thanks also to a revision of the basket of indicators. Italy recorded a score of 90 in 2019, an increase of 10 points compared to two years ago (80), while the values between 2012 and 2017 were between 77 and 80 points.

Italy performs very well in SME innovation (more than 30 points above the EU average) and defends itself worthily in the areas of intellectual assets (the area measures, among other things, the number of trademark and patent applications) and the attractiveness of the research system (due mainly to the high number of the most quoted publications), where it is substantially in line with the European average. For the rest, the Italian performance shows all the structural weaknesses that have been widely known for years. We are behind in terms of public expenditure in R&D (61 points) and relative private investments (58), in the number of companies collaborating with other public and private partners (56), in the number of new PhD students (66), and in the rate of private co-financing for public research activities (67, but in significant increase compared to the beginning of the decade). Finally, the value relative to the number of graduates is disastrous, with only 25.3% of 25 to 34 year olds having completed university, placing Italy second to last, only above Romania.


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