From micro-algae to the economy: Commissioner argues the value of research

Sponsored by: EU2017EE
10 Oct 2017 | News

Carlos Moedas on how open science, inter-disciplinarity, missions and an EIC could raise the impact of EU-funded research and innovation

Since taking office in late 2014 as EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Portugal’s Carlos Moedas has been pushing to increase, and demonstrate politically, the impact of EU-funded research and innovation. Answering questions in writing from Science|Business, he outlines some of his plans for the next EU Framework Programme.

Q. Discussions of R&I policy tend to be too abstract, so let’s get specific: Can you give me an example of a specific piece of European research you saw recently that really excited you personally? Why did it excite you and why should the rest of us care about it?

I come across great examples every day of my work, so it is hard and probably unfair for me to single out one particular project. But on reflection, an ocean-related project springs to my mind, because it illustrates beautifully that the most exciting breakthroughs happen very often at the intersections of different scientific areas.

 It is the NOMORFILM project, which is using micro-algae to create prosthetic implants much more resistant to infections. This is because unfortunately, it is very common to get infections after prosthetic surgery, increasing the suffering of patients who are anyway going through the trauma of the surgery. [This research, led by the Barcelona Centre for International Health Research, was awarded a €7.6 million, five-year EU grant in 2015].

This project demonstrates how ocean research is helping scientists in a completely different field to come up with new, innovative solutions – in this case to avoid severe post-operational complications. We will see more and more of this kind of projects, as it is the natural and logical way for science to evolve.

Q. For that research, what can you as Commissioner do to increase its impact on the economy and society? How do you define impact?

I think the impact in this case is self-explanatory. My goal as commissioner is to ensure that the research and innovation projects we fund through Horizon 2020, the EU's current R&I-funding Framework Programme, achieve tangible impacts that boost the European economy and make life easier for citizens.

Moving towards interdisciplinary research is key to achieving this, but there is more to be done. We also need to ensure that scientists have open access to all the data collected in interdisciplinary research. This will enable scientists to pull relevant data from different fields and avoid needless duplication of research. Until recently, there was no such one-stop-shop for researchers. In June, we launched the European Open Science Could to change this. What is the cloud? A place where scientists from all disciplines working on publicly-funded research can connect, share and build on each other's work. Implementation of the European Open Science Cloud will begin from spring 2018 and expected to be fully up and running by 2020.

Q. In your planning for the next Framework Programme, what’s the most important thing you want to do in order to increase the impact of R&I generally?

One way of achieving tangible impacts with EU-funded R&I activities is to have "missions" in FP9. This would mean focusing some of our resources on a limited number of research areas, which would be defined in close consultation with citizens. Having missions that citizens find ambitious and truly exciting will make them much more willing to engage in R&I. This way we can bring in fresh resources to help find solutions to the aching problems our societies are facing today.

We have made progress in Horizon 2020 to focus resources in selected areas. However, I see that we still support too many different projects that disperse or fragment our funding. We need to set our eyes on very specific targets, and drive our scientific efforts towards reaching those targets.

Another way for achieving impact will be to set up a European Innovation Council (EIC). Currently, we lack sufficient market-creating innovation that is required to turn our best ideas into new opportunities, businesses and jobs. This is why we need an EIC that will listen, harness and add value to the ideas of Europe's entrepreneurs and innovators.  And it is not just about money. We are giving great importance to the human factor. For selecting the best proposals we will engage more experts from business and finance. They will assess the applicants on their entrepreneurial qualities and spirit. We are also preparing to step up coaching and mentoring to the entrepreneurs and innovators in the projects we fund. All this will contribute to boosting the Europe-wide entrepreneurial eco-system.

Q. As you know, French President Macron’s speech was a dramatic call for more focus on science, technology and education. Which of his ideas do you find most appealing?

I am grateful to Emmanuel Macron for his support on the creation of a fully-fledged EIC. Horizon 2020 has been hugely successful in helping to create jobs and economic growth, to tackle our biggest societal challenges and to improve people's lives. It has clear and tangible EU added value by producing demonstrable benefits compared to intergovernmental, national or regional-level support. It has also been successful in attracting the best researchers and innovators. But we need to do more to embrace the opportunities that digitalisation and other disrupting technologies are offering.

As I have said, Europe lacks market-creating innovations that turn our best ideas into new opportunities, businesses and jobs. Only a handful of high growth innovative companies are European. This is why we are working on setting up the EIC, which will be a game changer. At the EIC, the innovator will be the one telling us what to do and not the other way around.

Of course, in order to put the EIC at the heart of the next, post-2020 R&I framework programme, we will need the political support of the Member States. This is why it is reassuring that President Macron fully understands the need for market-creating innovation and wholeheartedly supports the concept of the EIC.

Q. For finance ministers around the EU, what’s the strongest argument you can make for government – both at national and EU level – to increase its investment in R&I? Is it all about economics?

After several years of economic crises, Europe is now ready to adapt new ways to boost its economy and the prosperity of its citizens. For the European economy to expand, it needs to address its current sluggish productivity growth. This will require boosting R&I and investing more in areas like skills development, better management and ICT. This will ensure more impactful innovations and better dissemination of results. This in turn will drive prosperity in the long run.

There is plenty of evidence that public funding of R&I acts as a catalyst to boost private R&I activities and overall economic growth. An independent study done recently by the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) found that roughly two thirds of economic growth in Europe can be traced back to innovation, broadly defined. Moreover, it estimated that the typical returns for private R&I investment range between 10% and 30%, while public R&D provide returns in the range of 20%. Overall, public R&I is key to both generating and disseminating new knowledge. It also contributes to developing new skills and creating networks that enable stronger knowledge flows and are behind many of the breakthrough innovations that we see today.

But for public R&I funding to have maximum impact, it should cover the whole cycle of innovation, from fundamental research to market-creating innovation – i.e. solutions or products that completely re-shape markets. And this is where the EIC comes in.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up