It feels great to actually make a difference

Professor Mariana Mazzucato

Mariana Mazzucato is RM Phillips Professor in the Economics of Innovation, SPRU, University of Sussex and author of The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myths.

I sound American but I am one hundred per cent Italian. I was born in Italy but we moved to the US when I was five. My dad took up a post as a nuclear fusion physicist at Princeton University, but at home we only spoke Italian and cooked Italian. I do the same with my own four children now. My husband, an Italian film producer, only speaks Italian to them—while I speak both. Around the table there is—even in a single sentence—a mix of Italian, cockney and New Jersey…I should patent it!

It was a challenging, stimulating environment in which to grow up. Guests at the gatherings my mother would beautifully put together in our home and in community organisations, included John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who developed game theory. I’ll never forget his kind words to me at her memorial service.

I studied history and international relations at Tufts University, with a minor in Latin American studies. I spent my junior year abroad in Mexico City where I became fascinated with economics.  Through that experience, I was increasingly drawn to economic history and theory. I wanted to understand how technological changes affected production and growth in the long term. I chose to specialise in this for my Masters and PhD in New York.

The financial crash of 2008 sparked my mission to look at how governments could encourage sustainable growth. So many cuts to public budgets were being made in the name of innovation and competition. It’s wrong to assume the private sector is the only risk taker and driver of growth – indeed, the evidence shows that companies are likely to be more cautious than some public agencies across the world. This was true for IT and today we are seeing it in green technology. Just look at the recent news around ARPA-E beating Musk and Gates to make a breakthrough in battery storage.

My book, The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myths (Anthem, 2013) focuses on this need to develop new frameworks to understand the role of the state in economic growth—and how to enable rewards from innovation to be just as ‘social’ as the risks taken. I was trying to point to as much evidence as possible about what has actually happened in countries around the world; to debunk the popular ideology with the facts.  

Since it came out I have been advising governments around the world on innovation-led growth.  I’ve been commissioned to work on projects for NASA, the European Space Agency, the Brazilian government, and am on advisory committees for the World Economic Forum, the Scottish Government and the UK Labour Party.

It feels great to actually make a difference.  The former Conservative minister David Willetts said that I had changed Government policy - although given a chance I’d change it a bit more!

It gave me goosebumps when NASA asked to me to help advise on their economic strategy. We are living in an era in which new private actors are entering space, such as Elon Musk or Richard Branson around the International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). If we don’t think through the frameworks for such collaborations, we risk making the same mistakes we saw around public-private interactions in IT: socialization of risks and privatization of rewards.

I currently have a host of new projects funded by different organizations including two from the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission, as well as two new book projects which should see light before the year finishes.  And a wonderful team of researchers, PhD students and assistants who enable all this activity to find new forms and outlets for dissemination. Lots to look forward to in the coming years.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 11 March 2016