11 Oct 2017   |   News

For ‘moonshot’ projects, Germany’s Fraunhofer urges tight focus to ‘do it right’

German tech giant weighs into debate over next EU research programmes, backing idea of creating high-profile technology missions – but with careful planning

Fraunhofer headquarters in Munich, Germany

A debate over launching big, Apollo moon-shot style technology projects in Europe took a step forward with German technology giant Fraunhofer backing the idea – but urging the European Commission to give it a tight focus, big budgets, and careful planning.

“We support the basic idea,” said Mathias Rauch, director of Fraunhofer’s EU office. But there must be “a structured way of thinking about it. Do it, but do it right.”

The idea of creating a few big, ambitious ‘missions’ for EU funding has been gaining steam in Brussels over the past year – especially since it got strong backing in July from Pascal Lamy, a former World Trade Organisation chief who chaired a high-profile advisory committee for the Commission. The basic idea is to make EU research and innovation programmes more effective – and more popular – by funding some high-profile projects that can capture imaginations the way the US Apollo moon mission galvanised attention in the 1960s. Suggestions from Lamy’s group include ensuring that by 2034 three out of four cancer patients can survive the illness, producing steel with zero carbon emissions by 2030, or ridding Europe of plastic litter by 2030.

The general idea has been favourably received in policy circles, but the practical details are contested as part of the planning now underway in Brussels for the next EU Framework Programme for research and innovation, to start in 2021.  Issues include how to design the missions, how big and ambitious they should be, and – most of all – where the money will come from. Supporters of conventional grant programmes, for instance, fear the missions may divert funding from essential basic and applied research. Others warn of a potential muddle, as existing research projects may get repackaged and labelled as missions that have fuzzy or dull objectives.

Increasing impact

Fraunhofer, in the first such paper from a German research heavyweight, comes out in support of the mission idea as a way “to visibly increase the impact generated by European R&I investments and to directly showcase it to the European citizens.” It says such missions, if carefully managed, “are a means to reach the leading position in a certain field.”

The organisation is a network of mainly industrial labs with a budget of €2.1 billion and 24,500 staff. It is one of the biggest technology organisations in Europe, and the third-biggest recipient of Framework funding (after France’s CNRS research agency and Germany’s Helmholtz).

The Fraunhofer paper, however, lists several conditions for successful missions. It says missions should be limited in number, avoid duplicating national efforts, and have a clear goal, a longer timeline than normal in EU programmes, and a “reasonably high” budget. “Missions have to be defined and implemented in a consistent and transparent way,” it says.

Rauch, elaborating on the paper, said missions should be chosen ‘top down’ to support bigger EU policy goals such as the Paris Accord on climate change or the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that the EU has pledged to support. He said he liked some of the Lamy proposals, such as the cancer-survival goal or the zero-carbon objective – but that Fraunhofer will present its own proposals later this year. While not naming a specific figure, he said the budgets should be big: “I would rather see a mission that deserves the name, instead of having the same old kind of projects of Horizon 2020: €3 million, three years.”

Key ‘essential’ technologies

But another point, consistent with Fraunhofer’s own applied research, is that the missions should not come at the expense of funding development of ‘enabling’ technologies that industry needs, such as advanced manufacturing, Big Data, quantum computing or nanotechnology. The Commission currently runs a programme for this – the future of which is politically uncertain now - called Key Enabling Technologies, or KET. Rauch said the ‘E’ in the acronym could as well stand for ‘essential.’ Those technologies make it possible to achieve whatever missions the EU selects, he said.

In its -position paper, Fraunhofer weighs into some other policy debates now underway – and it appears to have already won one of them. It argues that, while the EU needs to boost funding for defence research, that “needs to be separate from” the main civilian research programmes. It should have “its own rules, its own budget and full cost funding.” Fraunhofer is also a supplier of defence technologies to the German government and would probably be involved in any EU defence research as well – but in the case of EU research funding, it warns against defence R&D “cannibalising” civilian research; the EU needs both, it says.

Fraunhofer’s position is shared by executives of several European defence contractors, who say privately that they can’t work with Framework Programme rules designed for civilian researchers. In a boost for that view, EU Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska last week told the European Parliament that defence and civilian research should indeed be run separately. Fraunhofer’s CEO was a member of the "Group of Personalities"advisory panel to the Commissioner. Following a €90 million defence pilot investment from the EU’s common budget in 2017-2019, the Commission is proposing a rise to €500 million in 2019-2020, and the figure could rise to €1.5 billion a year from 2021.

Keep industry on board

Other points raised by Fraunhofer would be more familiar to Brussels policy watchers. It says that ”research for and with industry has to remain a central and dedicated part” of the Framework Programme. The private sector currently accounts for 28 per cent of Horizon 2020 participants; but last Spring a report from the European Parliament questioned the effectiveness and fairness of industry participation. Fraunhofer argues for the status quo, saying Framework should “stimulate industry-academia collaboration”, fund emerging technologies important to industry, and “continue to fund the development of future and key technologies in pre-competitive innovation networks under a dedicated programme.”

It also calls for continued support of collaborative research to develop technologies for market; and in the case of the Commission’s proposal to create a new European Innovation Council, it says individual grant applicants should get money “only in exceptional circumstances.” FP9 “needs to have a straightforward technology-push approach that turns Europe’s excellent research into innovative products and solutions.”  It also reiterates its prior position that the Commission should accept the “usual accounting practice” of research organisations, rather than impose its own rules.