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Recasting the EUs research and innovation policy

The European Commission has proposed in February 2011 some general guidelines for a new Common Strategic Framework for research and innovation in the EU. The Member States and European Parliament will have the final word in the near future. In the meanwhile the debate has reached cruiser altitude and is actively mobilizing the multiple interests and ideas about the future of research and innovation inEurope.

There is a lot at stake inEurope. The severe economic crisis and the increased knowledge-based market competition at global level have brought to the fore the need of a serious re-thinking of how the EU supports advanced knowledge-creation and its economic-industrial implications. Besides, the severe public budget retrenchments everywhere inEuropecall for a more efficient use of public spending.

It is therefore of paramount importance that the current political window of opportunity for a major recasting of EUs research and innovation policy is not missed. It is true that it takes time to change the course of a super-tank and that profound organizational change is indeed rare and risky. ButEuropecan no longer afford piecemeal tinkering in this fundamental policy area.

With this in mind, I would like to focus on the 7 most pressing problems of current EU research and innovation policy, and suggest some courses for action:

Problem number one in the EU is the high level of administrative burdens of EU research and innovation policy administration. A long-lasting culture of micro-management has negative consequences in terms of researchers and innovators’ wasted time. The EU needs a much higher level of ambition than suggested in the green book on this particular item. It needs to create a true culture of ‘user-friendly’ grant application and management procedures, it needs to reduce ‘time to contract’ dramatically, and it needs to create one single set of rules across programs.

A second problem in the EU is what can be called a “research and innovation program jungle”: multiple programs and policy instruments with little critical mass to make a difference inEurope, some of them openly overlapping each other. The future Common Strategic Framework should not just be ‘old wine in new bottles’ where new tags and clusters of instruments end up changing nothing. On the contrary, this is a unique opportunity to make a serious effort to implement the moratorium on new instruments that was suggested by the panel evaluating FP7, and, if necessary, to take decided steps to reduce the number of existing ones.

The third problem in the EU (and at national level too) is an unhealthy obsession with measuring effects and controlling outputs. To be true, tax-payers money must be administered sensibly particularly in these days of scarcity and retrenchments. Having said that however, one might consider whether the pendulum has swing too far when it comes to measuring ‘deliverables’ and ‘milestones’ on their own face value, rather than on the scientific achievements of the projects. It is worth reminding here that a risk-aversion culture is opposed to any sort of scientific and innovative spirit. We need to keep on repeating ourselves that deliverables are not goals on their own right. Instead, the ability to produce ‘ground breaking’ knowledge and its application are the true added-value of scientific projects, even at the expenses of some few scientific fiascos.

The fourth problem is that since the 1980s there has been an insurmountable separation at the EU-level between research programs on the one hand and innovation-oriented policy initiatives on the other. This has not only been a mere administrative separation, but two differentiated states of mind. This adds up to the relative difficulties encountered when thinking ‘systemically’ when considering the EU supra-national level and the cross- national level.  This calls for a re-thinking about the laudable efforts towards a European Research Area put forward in the year 2000. Perhaps it is about time to think about a European Research and Innovation Area. The recent plans for a “Innovation Union”, which includes goals like a single community patent, or EU-level technical standards, are steps into the right direction. Yet they need to be better integrated strategically into a ERIA notion.

The fifth problem is that some programs and instruments at the EU level have become ‘catching-all’ activities, and have for quite some time lacked a clear focus. The portfolio of policy instruments and programs at EU level is ample enough. Yet, this portfolio might need to sharpen its overall profile by examining whether there is the right balance between two fundamental dimensions, namely, the curiosity-driven research and the close-to-the market innovation support; and between diffusion-oriented measures and mission-oriented strategic activities. It is worth mentioning that the fashionable focus on ‘lead markets’ and in ‘grand challenges’ are very suggestive. But this should not be at the expenses of the other fundamental aspects like diffusion-oriented measures (like demonstration or pilot-testing) which even if less visible politically, they entail substantial benefits to the innovation process.

A sixth problem is how to address the eternal tension between internal-external dimension. The EU is a crucial and nodal point for research and innovation inEuropein a supra-national dimension, but it does not work in isolation. European inter-governmental organizations like EMBO, CERN, ESO or ESF are fundamental elements in the European system. The EU has strengthened its links with some of them, particularlyEUREKAand ESA. Yet, when re-casting the EU Common Strategic Framework this European dimension must be a pivotal aspect, searching for synergies but also reducing overlap.

The seventh problem is how to strike the balance between research/innovation excellence and competence-building. There is great diversity, both geographically and organizationaly, about levels of excellence and capability inEurope. One crucial aspect that deserves more attention is research education and training. Whereas leveling out European research and innovation capabilities is a very long-term goal, building competences in the younger generations is a crucial and indispensable step into the right direction. For that reason creating trans-European doctoral schools and addressing the severely oversubscribed Initial Training Networks program (People) deserve serious political attention.

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