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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 45 - May 2005   
 Profile of the Seventh Framework Programme
 Eastern outpost of the European Research Area
 The agricultural tradition
 Birth of Europe-backed research
 Out of Africa
 Campylobacteria under the microscope
 When distant worlds meet
 Coping with life on the outside
 Researchers take centre stage

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Title  The logic of the ‘leap forward’

European research is on the eve of an unprecedented shift. In announcing, in 2004, its proposal to double EU funds allocated to research under the Seventh Framework Programme, the European Commission spectacularly thrust to centre stage the key priority of the Lisbon Strategy: to root renewed European growth and competitiveness in a knowledge-based economy. RTD info meets the new Commissioner responsible for science and research, Janez Potocnik, now one of the driving forces behind this ‘leap forward’.

In doubling the Community research budget – which now ranks third, behind agriculture and the Structural Funds – the Commission is surely proposing a significant adjustment to the hierarchy of Union policy?

Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for Science and Research
Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for Science and Research
Janez Potočnik - To avoid misunderstanding, this announcement of a doubling of research funds needs to be stated in the clearest terms. I prefer to talk about absolute numbers, rather than increases. The Commission proposal was made in the context of the financial perspectives presented in 2004. These were formulated as part of the traditional seven-year cycle of decision-making that applies to all the Union’s policies – in this case, for the years 2007 to 2013. There has always been a discrepancy between this global seven-year budgeting cycle and the five-year Framework Programmes. This is illogical and does not aid transparent accounting. In economics and politics, as in science, the choice of the units of measurement is more than a detail, especially if you want to compare the respective weight given to actions and policies.

From the Seventh Framework Programme onwards, we propose to synchronise these cycles by extending research budgets from five to seven years. The present average for Union research expenditure is €5 billion a year. The doubling the Commission requested would mean allocating €10 billion a year to research between 2007 and 2013 – equivalent to a total budget of €70 billion for this period. That is the measurable ambition that is proposed at the outset.

But this ‘quantum leap’ must be put into perspective. In the United States, 95% of public research investment is in one way or another under federal control, whereas in the European Union the present Community Framework Programme represents scarcely 5% of total public expenditure in this sector. That is the nature of our European model. Distinctively, it consists of a mosaic of national research policies. Doubling the European budget does not call this model into question but will, we believe, help to improve synergies and eliminate duplication of national efforts.

Nevertheless, how do you justify an increase on such a scale?

The most essential argument is simply that we have no other option. Over the past five years, Europe has adopted the direction set by the Lisbon Strategy, which has been affirmed and reaffirmed by successive European Councils. This means that all the Member States are firmly behind it. The objective is to maintain and strengthen our continent’s prosperity while, at the same time, safeguarding the social, economic and cultural models and lifestyles to which we are attached. To achieve this ambition, the Union has set itself the challenge, for the future, of becoming one of the world’s key centres of knowledge creation. The response is therefore one of simple logic: the whole Lisbon Strategy loses its credibility if we fail to give European research the resources with which to create this economy and knowledge society.

What is the present feeling among the Member States about the financial expression of this ‘logic of credibility’?

Health, biotechnology, food, agriculture, the information society, the nanosciences, materials, industrial technologies, energy, the environment, transport, socio-economic research, space and security are all included under the Seventh Framework Programme’s Co-operation programme.
As I have just said, the consensus on the Lisbon objective is deeper than ever. It relates not just to science and technology but to the ‘knowledge triangle’ – that is, the close synergy that must be created between research policy, innovation policy (which includes support for the development of fields such as risk capital and intellectual property rights), and education policy.

But the ‘moment of truth’ has yet to come. What is finally decided for the Seventh Framework Programme depends on the global negotiations, which are now beginning, on the way in which the Lisbon Strategy will be translated in terms of the total resources allocated to Union policy for the 2007-2013 period. There are a number of financial considerations at stake in these negotiations. One is the not insignificant matter of the economic and social cohesion of a Union that now includes ten new Member States. This is because major imbalances in economic development, industrial competitiveness and research capacities from one country to another clearly remain.

However, I want to emphasise that research policy has a very specific characteristic that sets it apart from the other aims of the Lisbon Strategy. I am talking about the need for it to be firmly based on competition through excellence. Science and technology are fields in which the objectives of ‘redistribution’ and of ‘just reward’ are truly inappropriate. Research funding must be an incentive that pushes candidates to become ‘top level’, not a bottomless pit of money to be squandered. If they are not allocated to those who know how to put them to the best possible use, these resources will serve neither science, nor Europe, nor even the country in which they are used.

Of course, new Member States or specific disadvantaged regions can and should be helped to equip themselves for successful competition. But this kind of support must not be confused with research policy. When it comes to excellence, a comparison comes to mind when I think of the state of football in my own country. Have you ever heard of a Slovenian team participating in the Champions League? No. No doubt there are second-grade tournaments in which we could participate. But, as a Slovenian, I can say that the mark of excellence will only really be conferred the day one of our teams meets Manchester United in a packed Ljubljana stadium.

To turn to the subject of the Framework Programme content, what specific new research needs will be taken into account?

The first need is not strictly speaking ‘new’. It is justified by the fact that European programmes act as a catalyst, as is increasingly evident from the number of replies to calls for proposals. Unfortunately, under the present limits to the Union’s resources, the phenomenon of over-subscription – the need to reject research projects that are excellent in every respect – is becoming an endemic problem that discourages excellence as much as supporting it! Take the Marie Curie actions for the mobility of researchers, for example. Here, 50% of proposals evaluated following calls meet the stated criteria, but the budget restraints mean we can only approve 10%. This is a frustrating situation that penalises a growing number of dynamic research players in the Union. In saying this I am of course thinking especially of SMEs which are a particularly essential target of European innovation policy.

Another important novelty is the creation of the European Research Council – a body that will give scientists the ‘free and autonomous’ means to explore pioneering zones of discovery, the financing of which will be an inherent part of the Seventh Framework Programme’s budget. Work in this area has now formally begun with members of the scientific community. 

Another need stems from the increasingly sophisticated, complex and costly tools that science and technology need to be able to develop – what is commonly known as ‘research infrastructures’. It is now generally agreed that some of these are only really of any use if they are developed and supported throughout the European Research Area, with allocations included in the Framework Programme.

The Sixth Framework Programme also opened up the very important strategic field of increased coordination between the national research centres of Member States, with the ERA-NET(1) programme. The pilot stage of this is now complete and we hope the Union will be able to grant increasing support to implementing this fundamental co-operation that must become one of the cornerstones of the European Research Area.

Finally, the relatively recent creation of ‘Technology Platforms’ has opened up a vast field of new possibilities for European research policy. These platforms bring together industrial, scientific, financial and political decision-makers from a whole series of sectors. With the focus firmly on increasing the industrial competitiveness of knowledge developments, their aim is to define medium- and long-term priorities for the development of strategic innovations and the research needed to achieve this. I believe that these platforms must play a key role in setting the new and better-targeted objectives of the Seventh Framework Programme.

Does this mean that the present major themes are going to be overturned?

No, on the contrary – we want to ensure continuity for the priorities that form the fabric of the present very successful Sixth Framework Programme. These have brought a fundamental switch to those research subjects that are most important to the knowledge society. But in a scientific and technological landscape that is evolving with increasing speed, European research policy must have an increased ability to evaluate, react and adapt. This is why the work programmes for the calls for proposals will be largely defined by the recommendations drawn up within the Technology Platforms.

A frequent criticism of the Union’s research actions in this field is inflexibility in the choice of support instruments that accompany these calls for proposals.  

That is another aspect that we must correct. Today, we have a whole array of instruments adapted to a wide range of possible support measures.We must be much more flexible in managing these instruments and allow greater freedom of choice for the research players.

You speak of management, but there are also recurring and insistent complaints about the bureaucracy that burdens the procedures. Obtaining Community support is often described as an increasingly demanding and discouraging ‘obstacle course’.  

I am aware of this criticism, which is well-founded. I am determined to get to grips with this issue of management and simplification of administrative procedures. The Commission really must review its approach in this field. The request for a doubling of resources makes this all the more pertinent. We must invent a new method of management for the way we make our evaluations, conclude contracts, organise financial follow-up, and so on. Large areas of these tasks require professional expertise that is beyond the competence of a public administration. Before anything else, the Commission’s basic mission is to guarantee the rigorous use of public money. Transferring certain logistics and administrative tasks to an executive agency – such as management of the Marie-Curie actions, support for infrastructures, or assistance to SMEs – would seem to be one of the options that must now be taken up.

(1) European Research Area-Network