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Smarter funding for research and innovation

2012-10-29 - Europolitics

Confronted with an economic crisis and austerity measures expanding across the continent, Europe is faced with tighter fiscal belts as it develops its budget for the forthcoming legislative period. But while cuts might be unavoidable, the new EU budget for 2014 and beyond still presents an important driver for bolstering the economy.

To date, despite its strong industry base and growing R&D spending, Europe is contending with the transformation of innovative ideas into marketable products and services; a deficit amplified by a lack of focus as well as regional fragmentation. Commercialising our scientific and technological breakthroughs and bridging the so-called 'Valley of Death' between the labs and the markets is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.

Europe stands out for its excellence in research, sound manufacturing base and pioneering technology sectors. Europe's photonics industry is exemplary for that innovation spirit accounting for an average growth of 3-4 times the global GDP. This young technology bears the potential to positively impact the large majority of our lives, helping to tackle a range of societal challenges. In its new framework for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, the European Commission has designated photonics as one of six key enabling technologies that can spur innovation, growth and the creation of employment across many different sectors.

Horizon 2020 is a forward-looking plan that - if implemented correctly and fitted with an adequate budget - can create a tipping point for an economically ailing Europe, giving it the power to compete in the global innovation race. Taking into account the fragmented EU landscape and budget discussions in the Council aimed at further slashing, it quickly becomes clear that a successful implementation of Horizon 2020 depends severely on more targeted efforts. Two instruments strike us as particularly important: channelling different EU funding streams towards one common goal and strengthening the cooperation between different stakeholders across the innovation value chain.

First, the concept of 'smart specialisation' has gained momentum over the past years and brings to the table a fresh perspective on EU funding programmes enhancing synergies between Horizon 2020 and cohesion policies. The 'artificial' separation between research and innovation and Structural Funds that has been upheld to date needs to be dissolved to boost effectiveness, strengthen innovative ecosystems across Europe and create economies of scale. Structural Funds can play an important role in supporting particularly the later stages of innovation. Identifying local innovation champions and reinforcing already existing high-technology clusters will assist greatly in ensuring a steady stream of funding from the breakthrough in research through to the marketisation of a product, while at the same time fostering 'excellence' and competitiveness across Europe's regions.

Second, Horizon 2020 takes the right steps towards enhancing cooperation and coordination between stakeholders throughout the entire value chain, encompassing the European Commission, research performing bodies and the private sector. 'Public private partnerships' present a valuable instrument for strengthening Europe's innovation capacity and creating an environment that fully leverages the valuable skills and expertise that have allowed the European industry to grow.

Money spent is certainly an issue, making it all the more important that we spend it wisely. Introducing the element of 'smart specialisation' to the legislative proposals is an opportunity for policy makers to hold true to their words and spur innovation, nurture excellence and foster cohesion. This approach, coupled with massive simplification and greater flexibility - which costs absolutely nothing - will down the line boost competitiveness, free private investment and lead to economic growth and the creation of jobs.

Article written by Maria da Graca Carvalho and Giorgio Anania (vice-president and Executive Board member of Photonics21 and member of KET-HLG).