European research: “a major work in progress”

Europe’s scientific research sector underwent a series of upheavals in 2007. The start of the 7th Framework Programme marked the beginning of a transition to more efficient management tools, while the project for building the European Research Area was given renewed momentum when a Green Paper was published and submitted for institutional and public consultation. José Manuel Silva Rodriguez has headed the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research since January 2006. He takes stock of his term in office.

José Manuel  Silva Rodriguez, directeur de  la Direction Générale de la recherche: «Ensemble, nous pouvons être plus puissants que n’importe qui.»  ©  Qwentes-J.V.R. José Manuel Silva Rodriguez, Director-General for Research: "United we can be the most powerful force of all". © Qwentes-J.V.R.

The 7th Framework Programme was launched in 2007. What lessons have you drawn from its first year of implementation?

When I took over the helm of the Directorate- General for Research, the EU’s 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) was on the point of completion, so it was simply handed to me on a plate, you might say. Not only does FP7 strengthen measures introduced in previous framework programmes, it also launches new ones, including Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the European Research Council (ERC). However, all these new management mechanisms have yet to be tested, as the calls for proposals were launched only in 2007. May I stress that careful attention was paid to simplifying procedures and strengthening the guarantees for transparent implementation of this Framework Programme.

Transparency must feature in all three phases of EU-funded research, from selection to monitoring to control. Of course project selection is the decisive phase. If this first phase is implemented in a transparent and efficient manner, the system has already got off to a good start. However, as nothing is ever perfect, a few improvements can still be made.

After selection, there remain only project control and monitoring, two fields on which we will be concentrating all our efforts in the coming years. Control (particularly financial control) must be efficient whilst avoiding excessive red tape. Much work has yet to be done on project monitoring. A debate is expected to be launched on this management aspect that is so crucial to both FP7 and future framework programmes.

One possibility is to devolve monitoring to research programmes, for instance. Or else to devise a system for “pairing” control with monitoring. Assuming that the best possible selection has been made, more attention could be paid to either control or monitoring.

One thing is certain: the extra funding makes it imperative that we improve our management system. While FP7 does reflect a will for change, there has still been no major qualitative or quantitative leap forward from FP6 to FP7. Although the new implementing rules enable us to do much more, we still have to test these new tools in the field.

Commissioner Potocnik is now talking of turning your Directorate- General into a sort of European Research Ministry, focusing primarily on developing research policy rather than on managing framework programmes. What is your view?

Project management is already being devolved. The recent launch of two new agencies – the ERC Executive Agency and the Research Executive Agency of the European Communities – reflects this will for partial delegation. The launch of the JTIs is also a good example of management sharing. By involving the various industrial sectors, which play a crucial role in applied research (an area where the EU remains rather weak), the JTIs consolidate the European Commission’s standing in the research world.

The clear aim of creating a European Research Ministry is to strengthen our Directorate-General’s role in the scientific debate. This is decisive in surmounting the many obstacles preventing completion of the European Research Area (ERA). Managing the framework programmes represents a major workload and DG Research spends far too much time on it. It is imperative for us to devolve some aspects of framework-programme management, such as routine financial control tasks, to allow us to focus our efforts on policymaking, which is a crucial for the future of European research.

Did the public consultation on the future of the ERA, which came to an end in August 2007, help to consolidate this strategy?

The public consultation was useful mainly in confirming the European Commission’s choice of pillars on which to build the ERA. The decision that such aspects as infrastructure, researcher careers, training, mobility and international cooperation should be prioritised gives us a clearer vision of how to shape the ERA. All that remains is to devise and introduce the measures that will gradually make it a reality.

The ERA is still a huge venture. It is extremely difficult to coordinate national research policies but, as soon as we manage to convince the Member States that the Commission only wishes to play a research catalyst role, they will embrace the concept of their own accord. EU Member States need to understand that we are there to help them, not to complicate matters. Many types of research are possible only if they are undertaken on a European scale. United we can be the most powerful force of all. However, overall synergy is still sadly lacking. For his remaining term in office, the Commissioner’s main aim is therefore to coordinate and provide momentum to all initiatives by EU Member States and the European Community.

The Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs recommends that Member States should allocate 3% of their GDP to research and development by the year 2010. However, the necessary funding has still not been released. The response has been slowest from the private sector, which is urged to provide two-thirds of this funding. What is the explanation for European industry’s reluctance?

It is hard to generalise across the EU, because scientific research conditions vary widely from one country to another. In addition, as the Finnish example shows, an effective research environment relies not only on heavy investment but also on an appropriate education system. To a large extent, such effectiveness stems from a determination to create a knowledge society, which calls for appropriate national policies, especially with respect to universities.

There is also a wide gap between older Member States and newer EU entrants. Here again, the European Structural Funds will be called upon to play a crucial role in catalysing private investment. There is no standard diagnosis. That is the reason why so much time and effort is needed to develop a truly European research policy. The mechanisms that will govern the EU’s research and development system must be carefully considered because they will guarantee the system’s viability. Sometimes you need to split hairs to get things to work.

Interview by Jean-Pierre Geets and Julie Van Rossom


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3% of GDP by the year 2010?

Will EU Member States manage to earmark 3% of their GDP for scientific research between now and 2010? Nothing could be less certain. According to the 2008 Eurostat report on the status of science, technology and innovation in Europe, the European average stabilised at 1.84% between 2004 and 2005. This stagnation removes the EU a little further from one of the main objectives of the Lisbon Strategy. Indeed, Europe’s aim to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge society in the world is difficult to achieve with such a low R&D intensity (i.e. expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP) compared with that of the United States (2.62 %) and especially Japan (3.3 %). While China (1.34 %), an emerging country, is not performing as well as Europe, the gap is closing. Between 2000 and 2005, R&D intensity grew fast in China, whereas it decreased in Europe, perhaps in part because the latter was enlarged during this period to include countries that spend less on research.

Striking differences exist from one Member State to another. Sweden and Finland stand out from the crowd, with 3.8 % and 3.45 % of their GDP earmarked for R&D respectively, meaning that they can congratulate themselves on having already met, and exceeded, the 3% target. Next in the running are Germany (2.51 %), Austria (2.45 %) and Denmark (2.43 %), the only countries which the Eurostat report believes have any hope of reaching the 3% target by 2010. Trailing behind are Romania (0.46 %), Bulgaria (0.48 %) and Slovakia (0.49%). Cyprus is in last place, with 0.42 %.

Europe-wide, the public sector finances the largest share of the R&D effort (averaging 55%).Luxembourg, Germany and Finland are the only three countries where industry is already financing two-thirds of research investment, as advocated by the LisbonStrategy.