INTERVIEW

Research on every front

© European Commission
© European Commission

In 2004 Janez Potočnik was one of the principal architects of Slovenia’s EU membership. For the past five years he has been the Commissioner in charge of science and research. As such he has coordinated the European Research Area, advancing it continuously on every front. He looks back on progress to date.

Your mandate as Research Commissioner is ending at a time of unprecedented economic and financial crisis. How do you see this new situation?

First of all, I feel it is essential to stress to what extent we are facing global realities that are undergoing profound change. We are living in a fast changing world that is increasingly interconnected and interdependent and in which many new actors are appearing. At the same time, we are facing global challenges, linked not only to the present economic and financial crisis but also to questions such as climate change, future energy resources, the water problem, world food imbalances, the appearance of new pandemics, increased population movements and so on.

I am convinced that the 21st century will be dominated by two key issues. On one hand sustainability, understood not only in the environmental sense but in economic and social terms also. The crisis illustrates the need for a sustainable world economy and finance. The term must also be applied to social systems.

The second issue is global governance, because these common challenges require a common approach. Hence the need, for the international community, to build a genuine global governance within which the European Union can and must play a major role.

Is not the expression ‘knowledge economy or society’ a concept that is in danger of being abstract to the ears of most people?

But the knowledge economy is the one we are already living in. Science and its relationship to society relate to every political issue, such as health, the battle for the environment, education, jobs, food security, energy and transport. We are emerging from a period when power and leadership depended on material resources and entering a knowledge economy.

Innovation, research and education are the three factors that cause the economy and society to evolve towards this new paradigm of knowledge. This requires us to change our way of thinking and our approach.

The European Research Area, the ERA, has been the concrete expression of a new EU strategy on science and technology policy for nearly a decade now. What is your assessment today of this ambition, one supported actively throughout your mandate?

Europe has always been and remains a continent rich in scientific and technological excellence, but the landscape is marked by a deep-rooted compartmentalisation of research systems. For almost three decades the EU has supported close cooperation between European research actors through its framework programmes that have been allocated ever bigger budgets. Launched in 2000, the aim of building a genuine European Research Area now incorporates these programmes within a much broader vision. The ERA is defined first and foremost as an area within which research actors and ideas circulate freely, without borders, as a single market. After having created an EU based on four freedoms of movement – of goods, of persons, of services and of capital – it is now time to acquire a fifth, that of the free movement of knowledge.

In this context, the Seventh Framework Programme introduces a new and vital element in creating the European Research Council, the ERC. This is an entity offering the European and global scientific world substantial financial support to explore and exploit the most advanced research fields emerging from the development of contemporary science. It supports men and women or fundamental research teams, selected for the excellence and the pertinence of the investigations they propose, and the arbiters of which are themselves recognised and experienced scientists appointed by their peers.

The aim is to create a kind of Champions’ League of researchers at European level, akin to the Champions’ League in the world of football. That is precisely the role that falls to the ERC: to attract to Europe the best researchers whose fundamental research bears the seeds of top level scientific research. What best researchers? Wherever they can be found, at European universities and research centres of course, but also European brains that have gone elsewhere as well as foreign researchers who choose to work in a European framework. I am convinced that the existence of the ERC will bring profound changes to the reality of the European research landscape and change the way it is perceived. Europe will be regarded as more attractive by researchers and will therefore be more competitive on the world stage.

The ERC was set up two years ago. Has it now progressed beyond the pilot stage?

We launched it in 2007 with a budget of EUR 7.5 billion from the Seventh Framework Programme for the period 2007-2013, but with no pre-established structure. The ERC therefore operated with what is known as a ‘dedicated implementation structure’ before becoming an autonomous executive agency on 15 July, 2009. We therefore ‘learned by doing’. The first calls for proposals, launched in 2007, drew more than 11 000 very worthy candidacies. So it is certainly succeeding in attracting interest. Further proof of this lies in the very strong reputation this body enjoys in scientific communities elsewhere in the world, especially in North America.

For a long time now the scientific and technological indicators place Europe in third position at world level, outpaced by the United States and Japan, especially in terms of investments made in research. Yet compared with its competitors, it is the low level of investments by EU businesses that is seen as its principal handicap.

Most research expenditure is indeed financed by the public sector while the aim of the Lisbon strategy is to allocate an average of 3 % of Europe’s GDP to research, a third of which comes from public funds and twothirds from private funds. We are not there yet. This brings me to the second innovation of the Seventh Framework Programme: the creation of public-private partnerships, the Joint Technological Initiatives, or JTIs. In this way the Commission is aiming to encourage industry to invest in high-tech research sectors that are vital to our competitiveness but for which market demand is an insufficient incentive for businesses.

In cooperation with the private sector we have identified these strategic sectors and built joint companies to manage these research programmes. Five JTIs have been launched to date, in the fields of innovative medicines, clean aeronautics, fuel cells and hydrogen, embedded computing systems and nanoelectronics. As part of the European economic recovery plan, three new public-private partnerships have now been launched to support research in ‘clean’ technologies in fields of strategic importance in economic and environmental terms: the automobile industry, construction and manufactured goods. I believe that this new approach comes at just the right time amid the current crisis. They are tools for recovery through research and for research.

Apart from the synergies between the public and private spheres, what is the situation regarding a better orchestration of the 27 public research policies that each Member State is itself pursuing?

This desire to coordinate national research policies is an essential part of creating the European Research Area. Why? Quite simply because we are facing very major common challenges that call for a common response that involves research. The Commission has therefore placed on the table of the Council of Member States a number of proposals on issues – as diverse as they are fundamental – such as the mobility of researchers, the creation of new European research infrastructures, the strengthening of international scientific cooperation and the joint programming of national research agendas. On all these points there is now a genuine desire to press ahead.

In terms of joint programming for example, 20 Member States have started work on drawing up such an agenda for research on Alzheimer’s and neurodegenerative diseases that are a major health issue in Europe. It is for the Member States to define those fields in which they want to work together. The Commission plays a coordinating role in this, that of co-pilot and not captain.

Interview by Didier Buysse

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