Time to get going again

When the new Commission is appointed, it will find a raft of proposals waiting for it – all aimed at putting research, development and innovation at the heart of policy.

One Lisbon process is on the way out: the aim of Europe becoming the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. That process and its targets are being quietly forgotten. But another, broader, political process is under way, with the Lisbon Treaty set to come into force by the end of 2009. A new European Commission is being formed and a new European Parliament was voted into power just a few months ago.

The hope among several scientific advisory groups is that the momentum around these developments will provide an opportunity for the EU to update its approach to research, development and innovation (RDI) and bring it into the heart future EU policy.

In the aftermath of the elections to the European Parliament several groups set out their recommendations to European policymakers on what the major challenges for society are and what needs to be done if they are to be tackled. A Science Business Policy Bridge event, held in Brussels on 6 November, brought these different groups together with the aim of finding common ground on the essential principles needed for an EU policy on research, development and innovation fit for the 21st century.

“We need a radical new approach for innovation,” said Maria Da Graça Carvalho, a member of the European Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy. She urged the definition of innovation to be widened, to cover for example innovation in childcare, education and healthcare services. “Innovation and knowledge are going to be central to a lot of other EU policies,” she said.

This central role for innovation and knowledge was underlined by a plea from the expert groups that RDI programmes focus on the “grand challenges” – the major challenges facing society.

This does not mean climate change alone. It includes issues such as healthcare for an ageing population and sustainable consumption and production. A step in the right direction, said seminar participants, is the EU’s Lund Declaration from July 2009, which says that “European research must focus on the Grand Challenges of our time moving beyond current rigid thematic approaches”.

The expert groups are not short of specific suggestions on how to turn this wish into reality. Ideas include directing a third of all funding and a third of all scientists towards research focused on societal challenges.

Come together

Bringing people together and removing barriers between individual disciplines was also emphasised by the European Technology Platforms expert group, which was formed to give the European Commission advice on the future role of these platforms. ETPs, which connect European companies, knowledge institutes and policy makers in individual technology fields, should form temporary clusters to work on solutions to a particular societal challenge, said Gernot Klotz from the ETP expert group.

Such clusters will also help foster an environment of open innovation, considered a key element if Europe is to innovate in a globally significant way.

“Open innovation is based on the power of networks and access to knowledge across Europe and globally,” said the Business Panel on Future EU Innovation Policy, which emphasises how information technologies are transforming how people interact. Meanwhile, John Wood from the European Research Area Board has said knowledge institutions of the future will be open and digitally networked, and they will cooperate with industry and society.

But grand ideas are not enough. If the grand challenges stand any chance of being solved, EU member states need to coordinate better, there needs to be less paperwork, and all aspects of RDI funding, regulation and standard-setting must pursue the same aims, the expert groups said.

Go for gold

EU programmes need to play a greater role and ensure that they are more attractive to industry and academia by being more flexible – and being the gold standard for excellence, the groups said.

Once again, money matters, and how to fund all these ideas of focusing on the grand challenges, investing in world-class research infrastructure, open innovation and better governance is another big issue.

MEP James Elles, the longest-serving member of the European Parliament’s budget committee and one of the seminar’s speakers, said that a scarcity of funds and high government deficits means that a focus on excellence is required more than ever to make the most of available funds. The more the focus is on excellence, the more likely it is that the funds will be available, he said.

Several financing ideas generated interest. For example the Knowledge-Based Economy expert panel has suggested a new target for target Europe’s knowledge investment target: 3 per cent. By 2020, said the panel, 1 per cent of Europe’s GDP should be spent from public funds on research and development and 2 per cent on higher education.

The Business Panel on Future EU Innovation Policy came up with a new meaning for the acronym EIB: rather than European Investment Bank, it could be a European Innovation Bank, putting innovation at the core of financial institutions.

Whatever the avenue pursued, Europe has to find fiscal policies and new public-private co-financing methods that will make it easier for researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs to find the cash they need to get their ideas to the marketplace, the groups agreed.

The overriding message: innovation must play a pivotal role in the EU. By coming together and sharing their ideas and suggestions, the various expert groups underlined the urgency of the need to change the EU’s mindset. It remains to be seen whether they can convey that urgency to policymakers.

Author: Anna Jenkinson