Horizon 2020, the European Union’s flagship R&D programme, is big but is it enough to keep ambitious entrepreneurs in Europe? What it needs is a new shop window – an initiative to attract innovators, and help them find their way to the right part of the programme for support. That, says EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas in an interview with Science|Business, is the main idea behind his latest proposal, the creation of a “European Innovation Council” (EIC).
“If you are a researcher, you know where to go if you have a great idea: you go to the ERC (European Research Council). If you are an innovator today, you really don’t know where to go,” the Commissioner said. An EIC would fill that gap in EU R&D programmes.
Moedas floated the idea of an EIC in a speech last month, laying out his priorities for the next few years. He gave few details, but stirred much comment. “This is not for tomorrow, but I believe we should discuss it as a major element under the mid-term review of Horizon 2020,” the Commissioner said.
Moedas for the first time expanded on his EIC vision in an interview and why he thinks it’s needed in Europe.
Innovation competitions are “too dispersed” he said. “I feel innovators get a bit lost. [In Horizon 2020], there’s the SME Instrument; there’s the Fast Track to Innovation programme. There’s different bits and pieces, in other words.
“The people I meet who are not part of the Brussels bubble don’t know where to go. We don’t have an equivalent to the ERC – something that innovators look to and say this is simple, this is what we want.
“If I want to call the best fundamental researchers, I get a list from the ERC. If you ask me about the best innovators, I don’t have that list. Of course, I know companies and examples like Spotify and Rovio… but where are the ones we should be helping?”
Having identified a problem, the Commissioner thinks the EIC could be the solution.
But what is it?
“I’m not talking about a building or an institution like the EIT [European Institute of Innovation and Technology]. I'm not trying to leave some new building behind for my legacy. I’m talking about a programme,” he said.
The EIC would be a one-stop innovation house, created partly through some streamlining, re-branding and re-packing of Horizon 2020 innovation calls, he said.
The first step towards the EIC is to review all the innovation support in Horizon 2020. Afterwards, they could be brought together “so we all know where they are…. call this a one-stop-shop.
“But I want to go further than that,” he continued. One option would be that researchers with close-to-the market ideas would go straight to the EIC to find funding options. Experts hired by the Commission to review proposals will be able to guide applicants to the right funding option – “a meta-peer-review”, the Commissioner called it.
As well as streamlining and simplification, the EIC should be open to support innovations in any field, drawing from successful practice around the world, he added.
The finer details will be thrashed out before the Horizon 2020 mid-term review in 2017, the Commissioner said. But he’s unlikely to overhaul any budget lines to make space for the EIC. Any big shifting of the furniture would be confusing and counter-productive, Moedas believes.
He also ruled out adding it as a new pillar, or main subdivision, within the programme. “Horizon 2020 has three great pillars [to wit: ‘excellent science’, ‘industrial leadership’, ‘societal challenges’] already,” he said.
Nor does Moedas envisage introducing new legislation for the EIC. “We should always think before we legislate,” he said. “It’s too soon to say if it’s going to be legislation or not…. that’s not my intention anyway.”
“It’s food for thought,” said Moedas. “It’s an idea that came from conversations I’ve had in the first eight months.
“I want feedback. I want people to come to me and say what they think and what they don’t think about it. I’m not going to lose face if the idea at some point becomes something different but I think the way we have it today is a bit confusing.
“We are doing good things already. I’m not the kind of politician that says ‘I want to build something new’, for the sake of it …..we’re doing things really well. Horizon 2020 is an excellent programme,” Moedas added.
The Commissioner acknowledges the EIC is not a new idea: it’s reappeared over the years in different guises. In an article in Science in 2002, the director of the Centre for Medical Innovations at the Karolinska Institute, Hans Wigzell, called for the creation of the body, saying it could, “professionally support the development of results of science and innovations into applications and products.” More recently in 2010, the EIC appears in an EARTO (European Association of Research and Technology Organisations) policy document, this time as a body, with “the task of providing strategic, independent advice and guidance” to the EU Research Commissioner.
Through a mix of announcements in his first eight months, Moedas and his team has already threaded one of his core issues, science diplomacy, in some detail.
But the Commissioner last month proved he had a few policy surprises up his sleeve.
In the span of a 40-minute speech, Moedas pledged to develop “one or several” investment funds for “the new generations of great European innovative companies” and a “European Research Integrity Initiative”, which he said will set clear standards and mechanisms to tackle scientific misconduct.
He also said he’ll introduce a "seal of excellence" for researchers with good proposals which fail to win money from Horizon 2020. The idea is that the seal will help applicants get noticed when applying for grants from the EU regional programme, which has a special pot for innovation. The idea has been around for a while – Moedas talked about it at length in an interview with Science|Business back in March – but here for the first time it sounded like the seal will be an actual physical award.
For a lot of these issues, it’s early days. “I’m creating different [study] groups for the different subjects,” the Commissioner said.
For the time being, Moedas is content he’s started tongues wagging: “That’s the way things work in Europe. Create the ideas, get people talking, get momentum… and then nail them down.”