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Universities hit out at challenge to their role in Lamy’s report on FP9 and the future shape of R&D funding

Universities are worried that the call from former WTO chief Pascal Lamy for them to nurture more start-up founders and digitise faster puts their broader contributions to society, culture and the economy at risk of being sidelined

Pascal Lamy in 2010, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
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Europe’s universities are pushing back against the argument that they need “urgent renewal, to stimulate entrepreneurship and tear down disciplinary borders”, as proposed by former EU trade commissioner and former head of the World Trade Organization Pascal Lamy and senior figures from across research, industry and finance, in a report setting out recommendations for the shape of Framework Programme 9.

Under the Lamy vision, FP9 will be simpler, more flexible, better coordinated with member states and broader EU policies, and more focused on results and goals rather than process and administration.

But the report’s suggestion that higher education institutes in Europe should put more stress on entrepreneurship and multidisciplinary research has not gone down well. “This assumes that research-led education is currently wanting and that universities are simply not providing the skills needed by tomorrow’s graduates,” writes Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of The Guild, a universities lobby group, in a blog post. “On what evidence are these assumptions based?”

While it is easy to see there is a need to find ways to improve transferrable skills amongst graduates, that cannot be reduced to a single focus on entrepreneurship. A university’s contribution extends wider than merely spitting out the next Branson or Gates. “What about competences in languages and intercultural skills?” Palmowski said.

Push universities into digital world

Jan Gulliksen, a professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and one of the authors of the report, expanded on the group’s thinking on universities saying, “We’re good at producing researchers in Europe. Our biggest problem is the bridge from research to innovation; turning findings into possible job opportunities.”

Lamy’s report says the next EU research programme “needs to provide incentives for the modernisation of universities.” That means pushing them faster into the digital world, said Gulliksen. “Universities in my own country have been very slow at picking up new technologies; they are sometimes very sceptical about their benefit.”

Universities should expand their focus to accommodate life-long learning, Gulliksen said. “Right now, they mainly focus on catering for 18-24 year olds.”

Palmowski accepts universities have to keep up with the times. “But while states, economic systems and social orders have come and gone, universities have evolved with remarkable success for over 900 years. [EU Research] Commissioner Moedas emphasised that we also need to recognise what we do well in Europe – our universities are surely part of that success story,” he said.

More than innovation

Universities rejected the suggestion in the report that all researchers funded by the EU should have one eye on the market. The Lamy analysis says, “Every EU funding programme and each instrument should have innovation objectives and reserve budget for promoting innovation.”

In response, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) said, “Not all EU funding programmes should have innovation objectives”. It is disappointing to see such a narrow conception of innovation, said LERU’s secretary-general, Kurt Deketelaere. Innovation, “does not happen without fundamental research,” he said. 

LERU also hit out at the suggestion of a new ‘European University’ label to “reward research and higher education institutions which actively and successfully promote open science, open innovation and openness to the world.” This branding, “may not be the best way to achieve actual change,” LERU said.

Relaxing state aid rules

In other recommendations, the authors argue for a doubling of the EU research budget, from €77 billion up to €160 billion. Unsurprisingly, this ambition was widely welcomed, including by the Guild and LERU. 

There was also support for a proposal to relax EU state aid rules, which the report said, “Are perceived as insufficiently innovation-friendly.” As Lamy noted when he launched the report on Monday, “Korea, Japan and China are more relaxed than us on spending public money on research.”

The European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, which has been lobbying the Commission to revise EU rules on public procurement of research and innovation services, said, “As there is no equivalent abroad, EU state aid rules hamper EU’s competitiveness in today’s globalised world, distorting the playing field at the EU’s disadvantage."

Earto also welcomed the suggestion that research goals be better integrated into structural funding for Europe's poorer regions.

There is €100 billion over seven years to invest in regions to improve their competitiveness and the report argues that responsibility for this spending should move into the research programme.

The report also suggests FP9 should involve Europe’s citizens in choosing ‘moonshot’ missions in areas of societal importance, such as climate change and health.

The idea is intriguing, said Palmowski. But he urges caution. “Is social media really an appropriate tool for co-designing calls for proposals? How many ‘likes’ would the Theory of Relativity have received? Universities, scientists and funders alike must find new avenues of communication, dissemination and impact; but scientific populism will be counterproductive,” he said.

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Related subjects: Universities, FP9