Wednesday

22nd Feb 2017

Focus

Innovation 'crucial' for EU's global economic position

  • Sunset at King's College, Cambridge, the EU's top-ranked science university. Asian research centres are catching up fast (Photo: SharpeImages.co.uk)

The European Union has an odd relationship with the concept of innovation. If points were awarded for talking about it, the EU would surely rank as the most innovative and creative region in the world.

Yet the reality is very different. It is failing to bring enough new products to the market although it has the biggest research budget in the world.

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A single EU patent – making it easier and cheaper for inventors to protect their ideas – could be in place next year. But the bloc has spent decades wrangling about it and two member states, sulking about language rights, are refusing to take part.

Experts tend to highlight two major problems that undermine the bloc's talk about turning itself into an "innovation Union" – its tendency to do research for research's sake and a culture that favours safety rather than risk and sees failure as the ultimate stigma.

Dr. Ronald de Bruin, acting director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, says: "We do very good research but it ends up on a shelf. It is not sufficiently exploited. We simply see that not a lot of those research efforts are then translated into products and new services."

Some believe this is due to a bureaucratic approach to research. The EU may have large pot of cash at its disposal - some €52 billion over seven years – but there is little emphasis in making the research useful beyond the four walls within which it is conducted.

This is not always the researchers' fault. If their research suddenly takes them off the path described to the European Commission, and for which they have received money, they are not allowed to change course.

"Very often you get funding to research some specific topic but if in the meantime your research deviates from that topic and leads to something that could be more successful from an innovation point of view, in a typical research-funded approach, you have to stick with the line that you are paid for," says Professor Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities.

Axel Dyevre, whose project on making the gathering open source intelligence easier is funded by EU money, takes particular pride in the fact research is tailored to what "end-users actually want". He notes that this is something of a first for EU-funded research projects.

But it is not just that research is not tailored to the needs of the market place. Europe is also seen as lacking a culture of entrepreneurship.

Professor Alexander von Gabain, chairman elect to the European Institute of Technology's governing board, points out that when graduates from India and Europe are asked for their future plans, 25 percent of the Indian students want to become entrepreneurs, but only two percent of the European students do.

Who wants to be an entrepreneur?

According to de Bruin, Europeans have to learn to take risks and that failing is just one step on the way to a successful business. This new approach has to be taught however.

He recounts meeting a group of students and asking whether they were studying to get a job.

"Lots of them thought that that was a reasonable assumption. But then I asked the question: ‘how many of you are studying to create jobs?' This was a completely different question that almost none of them has asked themselves before."

A survey conducted last year for media company Science-Business appears to back up this way of thinking. It found that over 70 percent of respondents thought the overall culture in universities was an obstacle to innovation.

At a political level, the EU has realised the urgency of changing its approach to innovation.

A new strategy - but is it better?

Last year, it agreed a new ten-year economic strategy, Europe 2020, after having quietly brushed the failure of its overly ambitious predecessor, the Lisbon Agenda, under the carpet.

Innovation features prominently in the new strategy as one of five areas for specific targets for member states, although critics point out that the target of spending three percent of the EU's GDP on R&D and innovation has been a (missed) goal for ten years now.

"What is really missing in this plan is a strategic element. You should really look at how to achieve these goals. The main instrument is basically the will of the national governments," says Cinzia Alcidi, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies think-tank in Brussels.

Others are more optimistic. Malcolm Harbour, the Conservative chair of the powerful internal market committee in the European Parliament, says the seven "flagship initiatives with very specific deliverables is a much better solution than the Lisbon Strategy."

"By far the most ambitious and most important is the whole innovation strategy," he says.

"Innovation will be crucial for our position in the global economy. We are not competing with China as a low-wage, low-cost and low-quality product economy any longer. There is serious innovation going on in both China and India. That's why innovation and research and knowledge are crucial factors in this EU-2020 strategy," says the MEP.

Read more about innovation here

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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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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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