SK Presidency Conference

"Spreading Excellence and Crossing the Innovation Divide"

Brussels, Wednesday, 23 November 2016

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Minister Plavčan,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Two weeks ago, I went to Armenia for the first time for a meeting of science ministers from the Eastern Neighbourhood Countries. The meeting was the first of its kind. And a very important development for science in the region. But I also witnessed something else which was remarkable.

As part of the event, I visited the TUMO centre for creative technologies in Yerevan[1]. TUMO is a drop-in centre for schoolchildren that allows them to experiment with digital technologies and creativity. No child is forced to go to TUMO. But they queue at the door to get in. The children do not receive any formal diploma but instead build a portfolio of their projects and capabilities. They create companies through the intersection of Arts, Sciences and their Passion.

The facilities and environment at TUMO are better than anything I have seen in Silicon Valley. This experience reinforced my strong believe that excellence exists in every country.

Our job as policy makers is to cherish excellence. It is to find the excellence and nourish it, support it, make it a centre of international excellence.


On this note, I would like to thank the Slovak Presidency for organising a conference on an incredibly important topic - spreading excellence and crossing the innovation divide.

At the start of this important event, I would like to talk to you about three points.

  1. First, why building excellence in all Member States is critical to Europe's future?

  2. Second, what are the challenges to build excellence?

  3. Third, some specific actions I will introduce to help countries address these challenges.


One of the major political and economic challenges all countries are facing today is growing inequalities. If we look at the OECD work on "the Future of Productivity", this shows the leading companies rapidly increasing their productivity. But all the other companies are stagnant, with virtually no increase in productivity. So the gap is growing.

If you look at the work of Dani Rodrik, you see that productivity has grown in the ICT sector but has not diffused to other sectors.

As a result, the cities and regions where these companies are located are powering ahead. But other regions or sector do not benefit from this. The individuals with the right skills are benefitting. But others are not.

Why is this happening?

Lack of diffusion of knowledge and technologies. The new digital technologies are not diffusing. The knowledge is trapped in businesses that are investing in innovation.

This lack of diffusion feeds inequality, which has a huge cost for all of us. It translates into wasted resources, wasted talent and wasted potential.

Research and innovation is key to overcoming these gaps. We need to feed the pipeline of talent and ideas and help them diffuse far and wide. Ensuring excellence is present in all EU Member States. Encouraging openness so that knowledge, ideas and people will flow.

So in our conference today, we are discussing what can be done through programmes such as Horizon 2020. But we should remember that this is part of a much bigger picture. One that affects all of us.


One of the questions I have asked myself since becoming Commissioner for Science and Innovation is this. Why do some countries get so much more impact from their spending on research than other countries? And I am talking just as much about scientific impact as about economic impact?

I am convinced that the answer lies in the national Research and Innovation systems. They vary widely. So one of the first challenges for countries with low levels of excellence is to introduce reforms to their systems. This is never easy. It requires a good diagnosis of the system. It requires a process to reach agreement between the different actors. And it requires expertise and persistence to implement reforms.    

Then, of course, there is the varying degree of investment. But the newer Member States have been given a big opportunity to build excellence. The European Structural and Investment Funds are putting 100 billion euro into Research and Innovation. But to make sure these resources actually translate into progress, countries will need to connect the islands of excellence and network internationally.

And perhaps most important of all, countries need to attract talent. The best researchers and innovators are internationally mobile. If countries are not able to offer attractive opportunities, the most talented will leave.


Horizon 2020 is Europe's largest research and innovation programme. It is a unique programme which funds complex collaborations across nations. It is a programme that already produced a lot of excellent science and innovation, which drive prosperity and which will continue to bear fruit in the future. And I am incredibly proud of it.

We should not compromise on excellence. Researchers must know that they have been awarded a Horizon 2020 project because they are the best. Not because of the country they come from. This focus on excellence is even more important in countries with lower levels of science. 

So the role of Horizon 2020 is not to compromise on excellence. But to multiply it and diffuse it across the EU. At lot has been done to that end already: Horizon 2020 allocates more than 800 million Euro through its Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation pillar to help boosting excellence in institutes located in low R&I performing Members States.

This is a great start, but I want to go further.

There will be an important debate in the coming months, with the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020. But today, I would already like to announce some practical measures the Commission will take to support:

1) National reforms

2) Investments in excellence

3) Attracting talent


First of all, let's talk about national reforms. I am pleased to see that many Member States acknowledge the necessity of upgrading of their national research and innovation systems. Of course, also here you can count on my full support. Precisely for this, we have launched the Policy Support Facility in 2015. Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Malta have already benefited from this support.

So I believe we should set a target that all EU13 countries benefit from the Policy Support Facility by 2020. This is of course up to the national governments to request the Policy Support Facility. But the Commission will support all such requests.

Secondly, we will beef up and optimise investments in excellence.

Teaming actions have had an enormous impact, supporting the creation of new or upgraded centres of excellence in widening countries. If you want to see what success looks like, just look around. The 10 Teaming winners of the latest Teaming call are today present in the conference. Congratulations! COST, Twinning and the ERA chairs have been in very high demand. And we know that they bring excellent results.

As you may know, as part of the mid-term review of the EU budget, the Commission is proposing to give an additional 400M Euro to Horizon 2020. As this is still under discussion in the Council and European Parliament I cannot give you any specific numbers, but I can tell you that my top priority for the additional 400 million euro will be the Widening actions.

Horizon 2020 is an excellent programme but it can only go so far. Structural and Investment Funds play an important role in fostering R&I investments in EU13 countries. EU 13 states have earmarked some a lot of resources to science and innovation in the current programming period. This is very encouraging! But I want to achieve better synergies between European Structural and Investment Funds and Horizon 2020 to boost the impact of both funds. The mid-term review of Horizon 2020 will present a useful avenue for doing so.

We have seen a lot of success with the Seal of Excellence initiative under the SME instrument. Since the launch a year ago, already 3000 SMEs have received a Seal of Excellence. And an increasing number of countries and regions are recognising the Seal of Excellence in their funding programmes. This is not always easy. Some regions have faced obstacles with the State Aid rules. And the Commission will soon publish new guidance to overcome this obstacle. 

Building on this progress, I am happy to announce today that we will extend the Seal of Excellence.  The new areas where we will apply the Seal of Excellence are the European Research Council and the Teaming instrument. I also expect that very soon the Commission will announce a further extension of the Seal of Excellence under Horizon 2020.


Lastly, I would like to tell you about the steps we are taking to help EU13 attract talent.

If we want to attract higher participation in Horizon 2020 from Widening countries,  we have to make sure that the rules do not pose any obstacles.

In most cases, I can see that the simplifications introduced in Horizon 2020 have really helped. This is why there are some many newcomers. And the numbers of newcomers are particularly high in EU13 countries.

But one of the changes in the Rules for Horizon 2020 needs to be reviewed. This concerns the  provisions for additional remuneration – the so called capped "bonus" of 8000 euro – which is leading to problems.

In some countries, the capped bonus has led to reduced salaries for researchers when they take part in Horizon 2020. This is the opposite impact of what was intended. It has created a problem that did not exist with the rules under the 7th Framework Programme. I am especially concerned that this negative impact seems to be greatest from countries with the lowest levels of participation.

This is a critical issue that I am committed to solve. I want to make sure that researchers who  take part in Horizon 2020  will receive at least as much as they do for national projects.  I am open to all solutions to this problem and if necessary to change the legislation. The Commission is giving this matter top priority and I intend to come forward with a solution in the next couple of months.  


Ladies and gentlemen, let me once more stress how much importance I give to spreading excellence and closing the innovation divide. It is absolutely essential for all EU Member States. Not out of a sense of philanthropy but because it is in our collective self-interest. We need to address this issue to ensure a central place for excellence driven research and innovation in the future of the EU. We need to address it to achieve a European research and innovation system that is truly based on openness. But most of all, we need to address it to make sure we do not miss out on the excellence that still lies hidden in Europe. The excellence that could provide us with the answers to a better future.

Thank you.