Emerging tendencies in research policy call forth the cohesion–competitiveness dichotomy and implicitly advocate the hollowing out of cohesion objectives from future European Union (EU) research policy design. We trace the origins of this debate to the incomplete paradigm shift from the ‘mechanistic’ to the ‘systemic’ construal of technological change in policy discourse, manifest in the decisive influence the former still exercises on the objectives and instrumentalities of EU research policy. We look at some indications of this influence and we claim that they draw largely on reductionist conceptual schemes and sparse empirical evidence. We also examine the rationale for public intervention in the innovation process in two contrasting theoretical contexts, the neoclassical and the neo-Schumpeterian. We argue that the new tendencies in EU research policy stem from a mechanistic conception of cohesion and competitiveness as antagonistic notions and a normatively biased interpretation of neo-Schumpeterian arguments, and we scrutinise their inconsistencies.