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Experts urge radical shake-up of EU innovation policy (Euractiv)

2009-12-09

Five panels of experts have issued a joint policy paper demanding major changes to Europe's innovation policy just weeks before the EU's first commissioner for research and innovation is due to take office

Members of five advisory groups are urging the EU to "radically improve" long-term planning as part of a major rethink of the way it organises research and innovation. At a seminar in the European Parliament, hosted by Science|Business, experts highlighted five key areas where there is consensus on how to overhaul R&D infrastructure. 

"The world has changed. Markets are global. Science is an increasingly competitive endeavour. Innovation is becoming the most important engine of growth and jobs in an emerging knowledge-based economy. But in the European Union, many policies governing research, development and innovation need radical improvement," the groups said in a common statement. 

They want EU funding programmes steered towards research focused on the "great social challenges" Europe is facing, including climate change, alternative energy, healthcare for an ageing population, security and cohesion policy. 

New networks, institutions and policies for "open innovation" will also be required, along with greater efforts to encourage mobility of researchers and introduce an EU-wide patent system. 

The expert panels - four of which were originally appointed by the EU executive, with the other an independent group - say governments must step up investment in higher education, research and innovation, especially in times of fiscal austerity. 

Joined-up thinking needed on research 

More joined-up thinking and coordination between research programmes, and between Brussels and national governments, will be needed to streamline the bureaucratic funding system, the groups said. 

Finally, the consensus statement calls for open competition in European programmes in order to raise standards across the Union. "Excellence must be the watchword of EU research, development and innovation programmes. Only in this way can we compete globally," the groups said. 

The research community and innovative industries have been stepping up the pressure in the wake of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso's decision to make innovation a priority in the next EU executive, and as he prepares to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor. 

Progress is already promised in several of the areas highlighted by the five expert panels - all of which have published their advice separately prior to joining forces this week. 

Nonetheless, having made innovation the mot du jour in Brussels, the new EU executive can rest assured that the research community is watching developments in keen anticipation of major changes. 

Positions

John Wood, chair of the European Research Area Board, said research and innovation must "be driven by the grand challenges that we face". He said Europe needs to harness the potential of public procurement, given the large amount of resources devoted to this. Wood also wants state-aid rules to be clarified to help governments invest in much-needed new technologies. 

Newer EU member states should unlock the potential of funding programmes to boost research spending, according to Wood. "New member states need help investing in research. The structural funds are there but the money is not being used," he said. 

Wood, himself a leading engineer, said Europe needs a change of mindset when it comes to funding risky projects, some of which are likely to bear no fruit. "If 30% of projects in Europe don't fail, we're not taking enough risk," he said. 

Luc Soete, chair of DG Research's Expert Group on the Role of Community Research Policy in the Knowledge-based Economy, said the challenge for society is not just to increase the rate of inventiveness but to influence its direction. He questioned the value of setting a 3% target for R&D spending without saying anything on the nature of R&D. 

Soete said governments should forget about setting targets for private research spending, suggesting national authorities should focus on areas where they have most control. 

"Europe should invest 2% of GDP in higher education - whether that's publicly-funded or paid for through private fees. Spending in this sector is currently 1.3%. Governments should also commit to spending 1% of GDP on research, a significant increase on the current figure of 0.62%," he said. 

Soete said ten to 20 times as much money is spent on public procurement as on research, so this should be used to help steer the research agenda towards meeting the social challenges Europe faces. 

Gernot Klotz, a member of the European Technology Platforms Expert Group, said Europe has a problem with turning ideas into marketable projects. Part of the problem, he said, is the lack of funding for demonstration projects. Klotz, who is research and innovation director at chemicals industry group Cefic, said innovation must become more sustainable in order to improve competitiveness. 

"Europe today needs a more efficient use of available resources across stakeholders, the leadership of the EU president and new ways of cooperation between the EU institutions and member states, in order to ensure the timely delivery of solutions," he said. 

Portuguese MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho said the appointment of a research and innovation commissioner was an important initiative taken by President Barroso, and she stressed the need for a new approach to innovation in Europe. 

"The EU needs a new industrial narrative that will push the discussion and the agenda around innovation and knowledge. That narrative is just now emerging as industries across Europe begin to lay the groundwork for a post-carbon industrial revolution," she said. 

Carvalho added that without the Lisbon Strategy, the R&D landscape in Europe would be in worse condition. 

UK Conservative MEP James Elles said foresight is the key to crafting smarter policies to prepare for future challenges. 

"While the US and China take long-term planning seriously, the EU still has no long-term planning system in place. There is a need to establish an inter-institutional system identifying long-term trends facing the EU. This would allow policymakers to identify the key long-term trends underway and to develop the best responses to them. Long-term trends show that there is an urgent need to focus on research to remain competitive in global markets," he said. 

Richard L. Hudson of the Science|Business Innovation Board, an independent nonprofit focused on innovation policy, said the document put together by the five expert panels shows an emerging consensus in the research community on what needs to be done to rejuvenate Europe's R&D landscape. He described the document as "powerful statement" which will set the tone for the new European Commission. 

Background

Innovation has risen to the top of the Brussels policy agenda, partly due to the economic crisis and competition from emerging nations, and partly due to the 2009 European Year of Creativity and Innovation. 

With the Lisbon Agenda for Growth and Jobs expiring in 2010, and a European Innovation Act promised by next spring, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso appointed Irish EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn as Europe's first commissioner for science and innovation (EurActiv 30/11/09). 

The move expands the previous science and research portfolio and addresses a long-held criticism that EU innovation policy is too fragmented and dispersed across several sections of the Brussels policymaking machinery.