21 Jan 2016   |   News

European Innovation Council could be in pilot phase by 2017

Everyone has an opinion on the scope of the EU’s new innovation institute. Some of the best ideas can be found close to home, Christian Ehler MEP tells Science|Business

As yet, there is no firm timetable for the new European Innovation Council (EIC), but Christian Ehler thinks it could be in a pilot by 2017, using money from the Horizon 2020 research budget.

“I think it doesn’t make any sense to have an endless theoretical discussion about it,” the German centre-right member of the European Parliament (MEP) told Science|Business. “We should look for money for it in the midterm review of Horizon 2020.”

For Ehler, the EIC initiative represents exactly the sort of experiment he believes the EU should be involved in. “We should always try new things,” he said. “We’re talking about a research programme here, so we should have a trial and error approach.”

EU Commissioner Carlos Moedas pitched the idea for the new council last July, as a fresh shot in the arm for Europe, a continent whose universities and centres of research and innovation have long ago ceded leadership to those in the US.

The Commissioner spelled out the problem using uncharacteristically direct language. “We are rarely succeeding in getting research results to market. Technologies developed in Europe are most of the time commercialised elsewhere,” he said.

Ehler expects the idea will receive strong backing in the Parliament. “But first we will wait for a formal proposal from the Commission,” he adds.

Talk of an EU DARPA

For now, there is plenty of talk surrounding the form the new institute will take.

The speculation amuses Ehler. “We might have had two buzz words to begin with, but now we have at least 12,” he said. Still, he encourages researchers and lobbyists to keep making their inputs. “It adds salt to the soup.” 

A wide range of ideas are up already on the table, including a suggestion that the new council should hand out individual grants, or that its role should be a narrower advisory function.

One scenario advanced by the Commission involves porting the innovation model of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the government agency responsible for ‘moonshot’ initiatives such as the internet and stealth technology.

This version of the EIC would support small, excellent, commercially-minded researchers to run “high risk high gain projects implemented under tight time constraints”, according to a recent leaked Commission memo.

Ehler does not see the idea as a straightforward import. “DARPA works for a customer – the US military,” he points out. 

At any rate, the method of doing research at DARPA is not far removed from what we already do in Europe, he said. “The US didn’t invent the world anew with DARPA. What emerges from DARPA is disruptive in terms of technology, but the method used to make these breakthroughs isn’t revolutionary.”

“There’s all this fuss about disruptive innovation – practically, we’re doing it in Horizon 2020, we just call it collaborative research. ‘Disruptive’ is just different branding,” said Ehler.

If DARPA differentiates itself, it is in the short timetable it gives researchers to come up with an innovation. “It’s a more radical way to do collaborative research,” recognises Ehler.

But talk about a DARPA structure should not obscure the good research already in Europe, he said. “If you have a closer look at some of the collaborative research we did in robotics here in Europe for example, it’s comparable with the US.”

Keep it simple

If the DARPA scenario represents the ambitious ‘top-down’ vision for a new innovation council, a ‘bottom-up’ approach might involve setting researchers broad, open-ended challenges.

This idea is attractive for several MEPs, said Ehler. It is appealing also to researchers who appreciate working without milestones.

“Challenge prizes could be a valuable instrument for the new council,” said Ehler. “They let you get around the difficult task of defining an innovation – rather, with challenge prizes you’re telling researchers there’s a problem and asking them to go fix it.”

Offering prizes for answering particular problems – as opposed to awarding prizes such the Nobel, Lasker or Kavli awards for a body of scientific work – dates back a long time, but is a new feature in Horizon 2020.  

Similarities with the ERC and EIT

The message Moedas has been spreading since last July, when he first announced the EIC, is the new council can be the innovation analogue of the European Research Council (ERC), which awards generous grants for fundamental research.

Some researchers question why the two institutes were being treated as equivalents.

As Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of Euroscience, has argued, “Support for research and support for innovation; these are two very different animals. One involves public responsibility, the other private responsibility.”

Ehler offers a different perspective. “The reference to the ERC is really about linking the new council to a successful and prestigious brand,” he said. “For benchmarking purposes, of course, you can’t compare the two.”

Another EU institute invariably mentioned in the same breath as the EIC is the Budapest-based European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which funds large consortia of universities, companies and others to translate research into companies and commercialise products.

Some researchers say the EIC sounds like an EIT duplicate. Ehler disagrees. “I think the two can co-exist. Why not? The EIT has nothing to do with the EIC. I don’t see any future conflict here. The EIT has a specific purpose, a part of which is to teach entrepreneurship for instance.”

A limited advisory role

One expected function of the new council is that it will provide advice to the Commission.

For Ehler, the added-value of these forums on innovation is not always in clear evidence. “What is identified by the public sector as innovative often doesn’t fly. The track record of identifying top-down innovation had been relatively miserable in the past,” he said.

“Take Germany in the 1970s – advisers identified nuclear energy as the top issue, whereas it was the start of the big ICT era,” he added.

The German MEP rejects the idea of creating a council with a strong planning and coordination mandate, as witnessed in countries like China, South Korea and Japan. “We might do things a bit slower here in Europe than in Japan or Korea, but we’re not so foolish that we think an advisory board might know everything there is to know about innovation,” he said.

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