The New Missions Are Not about Conquering the Moon!

A convincing post concerning the influence of Professor Mazzucato’s work on the agenda of Horizon Europe was published recently on this blog. Of course, as a public intellectual (or perhaps a thought leader)1, she did a very good job. Thanks to her passion, commitment and eloquence, she succeeded in placing the mission message quite high on the agenda of the European Commission as well as of many other public and international institutions and forums. However, the panegyric requires a few nuances.

One key point made by Professor Mazzucato – the one which received the most attention from policy makers and the public – was about drawing inspiration from Kennedy’s Apollo ‘moon shot’ to argue for mission-oriented policies aimed at spurring a step change in current society’s efforts to address the new Grand Challenges of our time (such as climate change, global health and many others).

Obviously, Apollo cannot be taken as a good example of the way we want to achieve our ambitious goals regarding climate change as well as other areas of great societal needs. We think that taking Apollo as an inspiring policy model is misleading. Apollo had nothing to do with any societal needs and the goal of Apollo was not to achieve any structural transformations of our economies and societies. The Apollo policy goal was just about an extraordinary engineering achievement – made possible thanks to a quite simple institutional framework. We are talking here of a very centralised and top-down organisation involving the US government which acted as both funder and client, an executive and planning agency (NASA) capable of mobilising an elite of scientists and engineers towards the engineering goal and a few dedicated companies. Citizens were not concerned at all (only as taxpayers and TV watchers). Even the economy was not really concerned since the economic logic of Apollo – characterised by a disregard for consumers’ willingness to pay and the production and operation costs – made this project very far removed from the normal way innovation projects are managed and conducted within a classic decentralised market economy.

It is clear that the way in which our new Grand Challenges will be addressed should be very different. The great economist Thomas Schelling – Nobel Prize laureate in 2005 – wrote in 1996 : “Decreasing emission has to be very decentralized, very participatory, and very regulatory. It requires affecting the way people heat and cool their homes, cook, collect firewood, drive cars, consume energy-intensive aluminium, and produce steam for electricity and industrial use. Methane abatement involves how farmers feed their cattle and aerate their rice paddies. Carbon abatement depends on policies that many governments are incapable of implementing…”.2

What Schelling describes here is a difficult social problem instead of just an engineering problem. To deal with today’s Grand Challenges, the active participation and contribution of society is indeed an absolute imperative. This is about changing consumer preferences, social practices, perhaps lifestyle. And the economy’s active participation is also strongly required since a key issue is not just about the generation of green innovations but how these innovations diffuse, are adopted by a myriad of firms. This is the real economy – in which costs and preferences are central issues; not the Apollo economy – characterised by a fundamental disregard for costs and consumer preferences.

It is therefore obvious that the argument that we need a new Apollo is somewhat misleading. It conveys the wrong message that society is not concerned, does not need to be involved and that an elite of scientists and engineers will do the job. However, what is needed today to address the new Grand Challenges, as we all know, are profound structural changes within our economy and society – regarding business models and production modes on the part of firms, consumption patterns and social practices on the part of consumers. Apollo did not generate any structural changes and NASA, which is often presented by Prof. Mazucatto as the archetype of ‘mission institution’, is incompetent to contribute to the highly decentralised and socially distributed problems described by Schelling.

Through his argument, Schelling plainly showed that it is pointless to argue for a new Apollo to solve climate change problems. This was written back in 1996. It is a shame that 25 years later the Apollo argument should reappear. But nothing has changed since the ideas expressed by Schelling in 1996. The Apollo argument is still wrong.

This does not mean that we don’t need mission-oriented innovation policies. Of course we need them, but the design of such policies will be very different from what was done in the 1960s and 1970s by the US government, NASA and other mission institutions of that time.


1 D. Drezner, The Ideas Industry, Oxford University Press, 2017.

2 T. Schelling, Discovery by Accident, Technological Forecasting and Social Changes, 1, vol. 53, 1996.


On this blog, members of the Swiss Science Council express their personal opinion. This does not necessarily correspond with the analysis or position of the council.