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EU Commission sketches possible directions for FP9

The European Commission launches the Bohemia Study, a foresight exercise aiming to ensure the next EU research programme is equal to the challenges of the 2020s

Matthias Weber of the Austrian Institute of Technology
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The European Commission is kick-starting the debate on the ninth research framework programme, working title FP9, with the Directorate for research (DG RTD) putting together a taskforce to open consultations with stakeholders and sketch out which emerging technologies and new fields of research should be funded by the successor to Horizon 2020.

“We have asked experts to do a stock take of the different foresight studies by the likes of the OECD and the World Bank,” Robert Jan-Smits, Director-General for Research at the European Commission told a Science|Business meeting in Brussels last week.

The foresight exercise, called the Bohemia Study, will be completed in the second part of 2017. Matthias Weber of the Austrian Institute of Technology, leader of the foresight study group said FP9 should, “Come up with plans to address the challenges of the 2030s.”

The group has started to work on two scenarios, which are based on a “broad review” of forward-looking reports and analyses, said Weber.  The more ambitious one sees Europe and its research and innovation investment as one of the key global drivers of change in climate and energy policy, urbanisation, digital healthcare and disease prevention, and security and resilience. “We hope to achieve a global realignment around major goals by 2030,” Weber said.

The other scenario, with a slightly more pessimistic tone, foresees the “perseverance” of current trends and the intensification of existing challenges.

The rosy scenario

The next research framework programme could address global problems such as social and economic inequalities triggered by population growth, migration, and disparities in education. In its most optimistic view, the Commission envisions a future where coordinated EU policies and the smart implementation of digital services will address grand societal challenges such as security, climate change, and disease prevention.

According to the foresight exercise, by 2030 the EU will focus its research and innovation policy on projects with “high social returns” and will create “open ecosystems for research, innovation and education.” Also, Europe could be at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy and a sustainable production-consumption system, the so-called “circular economy”.

Last but not least, according to this optimistic scenario, the EU and its member states will invest more in research and innovation in order to boost private investment. This increase will have a major impact on the creation and the growth of leading companies in key global sectors such as environment, health, smart cities and societal security.

The gloomy scenario

The Bohemia study is also scoping a gloomier scenario. Demographic changes, poor education, and strong migration pressures could boost economic inequality, possibly generating “global turbulences.” In addition, extensive digitalisation of the economy could lead massive unemployment, while public policies become dated, as governments can no longer keep up the pace with fast technological change.

In such a scenario, research and innovation investment will “not [able to] deliver on social and economic promises,” with science budgets slashed and Europe’s scientific base eroded.

The future of healthcare

The Commission’s foresight exercise is also looking at how key individual sectors will evolve by 2030, to identify potential and challenges ahead. “These are just a starting point for knowledgeable and intelligent people to test and challenge them,” said Kerstin Cuhls, scientific project manager at Fraunhofer ISI.

Depending on how Europe chooses to move forward, the healthcare sector could thrive and become more effective and fair, but it could also take a turn for the worse. In the near future, inequalities in access to healthcare could increase and generate broad public discontent. However, the Bohemia study is working on the premise that scientific breakthroughs and new technologies provide the motive power to drive improvements in healthcare in Europe.

In this scenario, gene therapies are available to treat inherited diseases, while new antibiotics address antimicrobial resistance. The digitalisation of healthcare will connect health monitoring devices to patients, and doctors and insurers to electronic health records. This will allow policy makers to switch the focus of healthcare systems from treatment to prevention, increasing life expectancy whilst controlling costs.

As it is now, “digital healthcare is lagging behind,” said James Eshelby, head of European R&D business development at Pfizer. The implementation of digital healthcare systems requires the cooperation of a large number of stakeholders, including but not limited to patients, programmers, telecommunications companies, hospitals, politicians, doctors, and lawyers. “They all have to be taken into account,” said Eshelby.

The European Commission has put out calls for research projects that aim to solve these problems in the Innovative Medicines Initiative, but more coordinated efforts are needed. Eshelby suggested that Europe put together large frameworks that allow stakeholders to work together.

Healthcare systems of the future will have to become more integrated with other sectors, while citizens are put “at the centre of the decision making,” said Jane Kaye, Director of the Centre for Law, Health and Emerging Technologies at Oxford University. “We have to think more creatively about how to allow flows of data between patients and the healthcare system,” said Kaye.  

The future of mobility

By 2030, there will be more than 40 megacities with populations exceeding ten million. Rapid urbanisation will impair mobility and increase pollution, but the roll-out of connected car technologies will help mitigate this, and the resulting environmental and health concerns.

As the traditional transport market is currently unfit to handle such challenges, there needs to be a radical change in the mobility paradigm and current business models, using behavioural change and social innovation as drivers of technological progress.

“In the short-term, a system approach is the way to go. The emphasis should be on the collaborative economy, standardisation, quality, and priority research,” said Andrea Ricci, Vice President of Isinnova.

Connected cars will only work in smart cities, and more investment is needed in the development of advanced sensors and high-speed wireless connectivity. “From an artificial intelligence perspective, the car is just another item in the internet of things,” said Asunción Gómez-Pérez, Vice Rector at Universidad Politénica de Madrid.

Cars will use this infrastructure to ‘talk’ to their environments and to share data with other cars and traffic control systems.  Concerns posed by the use and management of data should also be addressed, and stakeholders should move slowly in order to maintain the trust of users.

Fabrizio Gagliardi, chair of ACM European Policy Committee suggested that different approaches need to be tried. An example of one approach could be lower insurance cost in return for rights to some of the privacy of users.

For Europe, connected cars are a great way to start re-thinking the single market and in particular the digital single market. It is a multi-dimensional problem that needs a regulatory system, involvement of the EU and member states, safety agencies and end users.

The future of energy

To mitigate the effects of global warming and to reach the COP21 climate change goals, Europe should get most of its energy from the sun, revamp its energy transport systems and invest more in energy storage technologies.  

More investment in solar energy research is needed, said Karin Markides, senior advisor to the President of Chalmers University of Technology. One way to do this would be the creation of a large international research infrastructure focused on developing solar energy technologies, she suggested.

Energy is a complex field “locked in tradition and business controls,” said Markides. To change this complex system by 2030, new standards need to be built, and the EU should invest more in research projects that explore other sources of green energy, such as nuclear and wind.

Consumer behaviour will be crucial and research budgets for energy should include social sciences projects. Member states need to devise new ‘green’ taxation measures and establish communication campaigns to raise the awareness of good energy practices. Increased fiscal measures would “help research,” said Dorothée Lahaussois, manager for energy & fuels at Toyota Motor Europe.

The future of security and defence

Europe may face an “escalation of high risk, low probability security events” in the future, said Jennifer Cassingena Harper, consultant with the Malta Council for Science and Technology.

“High risk because of how inter-connected we are becoming, meaning vulnerability to a cyber-attack,” she added.

One direction for future research would involve a bigger effort to tackle the “root causes of insecurity”, Harper said. This would see a greater emphasis on projects which engage citizens in security policy, over technological fixes.

Frederic Mauro, lawyer at the bars of Paris and Brussels, said the choice Europe faces for security and defence is between continuing “fatal” trends of low spending and seriously ramping up R&D investment.

He raised the possibility of creating a new “an ad hoc joint technological initiative”, a public-private cluster of companies and universities, to help manage EU R&D priority setting.

One area of focus under FP9 should be autonomous systems, said Didier Schmitt, member of the space task force with the European Commission’s External Action Service. “Planes are going pilot-less, cars are going driverless,” he observed.
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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, FP9