18 Dec 2014   |   Viewpoint

Video: Fund the research dreams but don’t forget about the dreamers

Incessant talk of a North-South R&D divide is not baseless but it’s becoming tired. It is time to try and change things says Carlos Zorrinho, Brussels’ quiet revolutionary

“I’m not very ambitious, I only want a revolution,” says Carlos Zorrinho, MEP and a member of the Industry, Research and Energy Committee, in an interview with Science|Business.

The revolution Zorrinho wants to foment would invigorate Europe’s R&D scene, closing a perceived cultural divide between North and South, and the very real North-South divide in scientific prowess and standing, through pragmatic measures such as ensuring cash is split between top-performing research institutions and more risky, experimental bets.

“Our system of funding research is not the best in the world,” said Zorrinho, who sits with the centre-left Socialist bloc in the Parliament. “We [in the South of Europe] get less out than we put in.”

Zorrinho offers a route map towards his own little revolution. “We need to put money in excellent [research teams] but also have courage to give money to people who are starting out in the science world,” he said. To foster change, do not fall back on the obvious answer of rewarding those whose CVs are brimming with achievements. The strength of a person’s idea, regardless of how their CV reads, should be enough to give it legs. Fund the “dreams” but don’t forget about the “dreamers”, is how Zorrinho puts it.

As a rule of thumb, he suggests 80 per cent of research funding should go to stellar institutions and 20 per cent to new, technical universities, mostly, but not exclusively, in the South of Europe.

As a whole, the EU is slow to get behind new ideas, Zorrinho said, suggesting funding could be set aside for teams of scientists and artists, who together may feed off each other and uncover new ways to tackle big research challenges.

Whether exaggerated or not, the North-South divide in research and innovation performance is a familiar trope to Zorrinho. “We [the South] are more disruptive and creative, perhaps. But we lack the North’s methods. In the North, people are better at doing things well, but they take fewer risks,” he said. “We need to accept the different cultures and take the best from both.”

Changing the world

Zorrinhois glad to be a member of ITRE, which he sees as a forum for “changing perspectives and [introducing] new narratives and stories. I think it’s important to be in ITRE,” he said. “We [get introduced to] all the [ingredients] to change the world.”

The work of the EU in relation to new technologies should be limited to three or four critical areas, he suggested. Thinking up new policies to incentivise the digital and clean tech economies should be top of the list. “Globally, [Europe is] a loser in the second wave of globalisation,” said Zorrinho

A first-timer in Brussels, elected in May’s European elections, Zorrinho was formerly professor of business at the University of Évora and later a member of the Portuguese government, where he served as Secretary of State for Energy and Innovation between 2009 and 2011. “Now I feel [I have] the best of both worlds. [In the Parliament], we can research, have an open mind, and make politics,” he said.

Juncker’s investment scheme

Zorrinho’s view of the EU’s new €315 billion investment plan, the flagship policy of the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, is that it is a useful conversation changer. “[We’re used to] talking about how much austerity we need. Is it enough, not enough? Now we’re talking about investment.”

“In my opinion, it’s not enough [money]. But it’s important to talk about investment instead of austerity,” he said.

There is a little bit of financial alchemy going on, he noted. “You put in only €8 billion of fresh money,[and] hope by a miracle, perhaps inspired by the Pope’s [visit to the European Parliament plenary] in Strasbourg, that it will produce €315 billion.”

The ambition of attracting so much private sector money from the initial investment is not very realistic in the still-thrifty days following the global financial crisis, said Zorrinho. “[Only] if the economy is running well, is it possible to have these kind of multipliers.”

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