10 Jun 2020   |   News

Better luck next time? How the EU can move faster when disaster strikes

A new health-research programme, a standing network of innovators, new partnerships are among ways the EU could respond faster to the next crisis, a Science|Business conference hears

Jean-David Malo

Jean-David Malo, director of the Commission’s task force planning the EIC. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the European Union has mustered more than €1 billion for emergency R&D. But it, like other governments, should have moved faster and needs to get going now to prepare its science and technology communities for the next crisis.

That message of R&D preparedness was a key conclusion at a Science|Business Web conference 8 June. “The number of difficulties we have faced (during the pandemic) was just a demonstration that, indeed, we were not prepared,” said Jean-David Malo, director of the European Innovation Council (EIC) Task Force, part of the European Commission’s research policy department.

For next time – whether for pandemic, climate change, earthquake or other disasters – he and other speakers suggested a range of possible preparedness measures that could be set in place now. They included a new EU-wide health research programme, a programme linking ‘deeptech’ innovators, and strategic use of public procurement to boost innovation. The goal: To be ready next time to move faster, with science know-how and tech tools.

Malo, whose EIC funds innovative companies across the EU, said policymaking needs to become more “agile” to address similar challenges in the future. For example, he argued that a possible research partnership on pandemics, mentioned by research commissioner Mariya Gabriel in April, should be able to draw on various parts of the EU budget and not just Horizon Europe, the forthcoming research programme. “Any type of support which is necessary to develop and to deploy the objective should be provided by various parts” of the EU’s long-term budget plan, he said.  

Rapid-response network

Another suggestion: To create a programme linking deeptech researchers and innovators so they can respond quickly with the kind of disruptive ideas needed in an emergency, said Sergio Bertolucci, scientific chair of ATTRACT, an EU-funded partnership for breakthrough technologies, which sponsored the conference.

“Europe has the most developed ecosystem for open science,” said Bertolucci, who is also CERN’s former scientific director. “If Europe succeeds just to transfer it to open innovation, Europe will be very resilient to any development in the future,” he said.

He argued ATTRACT provides an example of how that can be achieved. The partnership funds proof-of-concept tech projects on the assumption not all will take off; “you want something which grows fast and dies fast” said Bertolucci. “At same time while you are doing that, you are creating an open network of innovators who connect among themselves,” he said.

Similarly, Malo believes that to get useful ideas off the ground and into the market faster, the EU’s different research and innovation agencies should be more closely linked, particularly the EIC and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). He argued that by linking different organs together, the EU could provide greater continuity of support for new ideas as they develop.

The grades are in…

The discussion took place just hours after the EIC awarded €314 million to 72 companies promising to help mitigate COVID-19 and Europe’s economic recovery. Maria da Graça Carvalho, a member of the European Parliament and former Portuguese science minister, said the EIC had done better than other EU agencies and institutions in responding quickly. Bertolucci, a physics professor at the University of Bologna, agreed: “I would give the EIC A-plus cum laude, and I would give to the rest (of the Commission) between B and C,” he said.

Another way to get new technologies into the market is public procurement, said Malo. “Innovative procurement,” in which the public sector prioritises some purchases from emerging high-tech firms, is “a tool that can help the scale-up of deep-tech startups and companies,” he said.

Bertolucci said risk aversion is a problem in Europe, but that the pandemic presents an opportunity to overcome it. “We don’t have a lack of innovators, we don’t have a lack of opportunity,” he said; “we just have to increase the appetite for risk.” He said the temptation to pursue “business as usual” just stores up other risks for the future. “I think that it is clear to everybody that we’ll never go back to before COVID,” he said.

A European health alliance

Carvalho said the EU also needs to increase cooperation on health policy without tripping over the EU treaties, which put health firmly in the purview of national governments. One option, she said, is more integrated research by European governments and the Commission.

“The problem is that Europe doesn’t have a National Institutes of Health like the US,” she said. The NIH is a massive biomedical research agency under the US federal government; but in Europe, fragmentation of health research is a problem. “Between the European Commission and the member states, and even inside the European Commission, you have health research in different parts,” said Carvalho.

Carvalho said she had been part of an unsuccessful push for a European alliance on biomedical health in Horizon 2020, the EU’s current research programme and the predecessor to Horizon Europe. “If we had succeeded, the response now [to the pandemic] would have been completely different—much faster, much more coordinated,” she said.

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