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Let the people decide how to spend (some) EU research funds

Making the case for giving citizens a say on future science paths and some other ideas for the European Commission’s next research programme

Robert Madelin, former Commission civil servant and adviser
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The general public should choose where 10 per cent of EU’s research budget goes, under a ‘participatory budget’ scheme, in which taxpayers in member states would be invited to submit proposals for consideration by the European Commission.

“The suggestion is to give people a greater say in EU spending,” said Robert Madelin, visiting cyber research fellow at Oxford University and former director-general of the Commission’s DG Connect, speaking at a Science|Business conference last week.

For instance, someone who thinks that the EU has been underfunding artificial intelligence research could vote to allocate double the proposed amount for such programmes.

An experiment of this kind is underway in Paris, where residents are being asked to decide how the city spends €430 million by 2020. The public can vote on up to 15 projects each year, from building pop-up swimming pools to erecting big screens throughout the capital.

Madelin said his directorate considered this approach when the Future and Emerging Technology flagship research projects were selected in 2012. In the end, it was decided it would be too much hassle to allow the public to vote on the shortlist of six pilot projects, and officials awarded grants of €1 billion apiece to graphene and brain research.

If the idea was revisited today using Madelin’s ten per cent criterion, EU citizens would be given free rein over roughly €770 million.

New ideas for Framework Programme 9

The conference also heard a range of pitches for the next research programme, FP9, which is due to run from 2021 to 2028. 

EU funding could be used to re-purpose libraries into “centres for a new entrepreneurial collaborative culture”, proposed Fabienne Stordeur and Bror Salmelin, advisers with the Commission.

“A new type of library would also build around itself a start-up and prototyping community, at its early development stage, leading to more structured start-up ecosystems in later stage,” said Stordeur. 

There were also calls for spending more on faster internet and coding tuition for children.

Jaak Aaviksoo, rector of Tallinn University of Technology, suggested nudging the EU further into a digital society by creating e-identities for all its citizens.

This idea has been a hit in Aaviksoo’s country where, armed with a chip-and-pin identity card, Estonians can run all their affairs from a laptop or smartphone.

Aaviksoo is sensitive to the challenge of exporting the model. “Attaching a number to everyone is controversial. In Estonia, we’re small, we don’t care. But for Germany, it’s toxic,” he said.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, FP9

Research Strategies The next Framework Programme
In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.