Thursday

19th Oct 2017

Focus

Sighs of relief as new EU innovation fund replaces the old

  • Research for the sake of it is a charge often laid at European doors (Photo: European Commission)

Industry leaders, academics and MEPs have all warmly welcomed a recent proposal for a new, seven-year EU fund for research and innovation - if only because it is nothing like its predecessor.

“The change is clear. The structure, the focus. It is all absolutely different,” says Spanish centre-left MEP Teresa Riera Madurell, overseeing a part of the no less than six related legislative proposals currently making their way through parliament.

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“It is a very good proposal for the time we live in," she adds.

EU research funding has never been easy. It is famously slow and complex, to the extent that for many companies and scientists, the potential gains do not outweigh the costs of applying.

“The issue of simplification [...] dates back to almost the very beginning of the EU’s research funding activities,” writes German centre-right MEP Christian Ehler, one of the other five deputies dealing with the issue.

MEPs over the years have repeatedly called for change - “a radical overhaul” in a 2010 resolution, or “a quantum leap” in the words of Ehler.

Sighs of relief, then, must have gone through the boardrooms and laboratoriums of Europe when in late last November the European Commission proposed “a new vision for research and innovation” with “radically simplified rules and procedures”.

The package - dubbed Horizon 2020 - proposes an €80bn R&D fund for 2014-2020, up from €55bn for the last seven years. If unchanged, it will be the largest in the world - ever.

Its main virtue is that it groups the plethora of current EU research and innovation activities under one single set of rules. One goal is to reduce the time between an application filed and money received.

“Today, the time to grant is around two years, which is almost prohibitive. In a world that is changing fast, speed is key,” says Jurgen Leohold, research director at Volkswagen.

The fund further aims to connect the continent’s lab rats with salespeople - the EU has often been accused of doing research for the sake of doing research - and pays particular attention to ideas that may help tackle what it calls the “grand societal challenges” - things like climate change and an ageing population.

All in favour

Industry leaders have all but embraced the new proposal.

“We strongly support Horizon 2020,” says Hugues-Arnaud Mayer, innovation chief at French employers’ union Medef. Not in the least, he says, because it embodies “a great new spirit of more public/private cooperation”.

Not enough, though, for Andreas Barner, chairman of German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim and innovation chief at BDI, a federation of German industries.

“Horizon 2020 clearly goes in the right direction,” he says. But he would have liked to see “more advances in further research with academia”. With regard to simplification, he says, the proposal is “very remarkable, an important step”.

ThyssenKrupp’s innovation chief Reinhold Achatz agrees but is not surprised at the content of the proposal. “Our input has been much emphasised,” he says.

He says that even though the simplification looks good on paper, it still needs to be implemented. “There needs to be a culture change," he says, "also in the EU institutions.”

For their part, European universities have joined the industry in praising the proposal.

“I am fairly positive,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the European League of Research Universities. He is especially taken by the aim to allocate funds on the basis of excellence. “We are in favour,” he says.

Battle for budget

But for now, the proposal is just a proposal and will still have to survive the EU law-making machinery.

Both EU member states and parliament will have to come to an agreement on a big part of the package - something which is likely to come down to a battle for money as negotiations heat up on the EU’s overall budget for 2014-2020.

National governments, tied to austerity at home, are keen also to cut EU spending and may see R&D, the bloc’s biggest budget post after agriculture and cohesion policy, as an easy target.

MEPs, on the other hand, remarkably united across the political spectrum, are calling for an even higher R&D budget than proposed.

“€80bn is not enough,” says Riera Madurell. “Everybody [in the research committee] agrees.”

She says that even though at first glance it looks like a considerable increase - up from €55bn - it should be taken into account that the new fund merges several into one.

“We know that it will be difficult,” she says. “We will have some strong discussions with the council.”

EU innovation efforts unknown

The efforts of the EU to turn the old continent into an “innovation union” are largely unknown to business leaders, according to a survey by global accounting firm Ernst & Young.

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The Acta debate - will innovation be stifled?

Opponents of Acta, the controversial anti-counterfeiting treaty up for vote in the European Parliament in July, say, among other things, that it would stifle innovation. Advocates say the exact opposite.

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Ties between science and business in Europe have always been weak. But that is changing - to the chagrin of some. The case of a Belgian scientist who participated in an anti-gmo protest is likely to fuel the debate.

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