09 Jan 2020   |   News

New R&D commissioner aims to ‘revitalise’ European Research Area, for east and west

In an interview Mariya Gabriel says her priorities include establishment of a European Knowledge Strategy, and reducing the east-west performance gap

“I believe in the force of small-scale projects and concrete measures,” Gabriel said. Photo: European Commission

The European Union’s new innovation chief wants to “revitalise” efforts to create a real single market for research, education and innovation, bridging the performance gap between eastern and western Europe.

In an interview with Science|Business, Mariya Gabriel, the new commissioner for research, innovation, education culture and youth, laid out her plans for R&D policy in the next five years.

Her long term goal: the establishment of a “European Knowledge Strategy” that would try to integrate policies for the movement of ideas, researchers and students around the EU. This would include a revamp of the European Research Area, a long-standing – but, critics say, minimally effective – EU effort to get research communities across the EU collaborating more easily. It would eventually also incorporate EU plans for a European Education Area, an emerging effort to coordinate education policies. 

Specific measures could include ensuring equal pay for eastern and western researchers moving around Europe under the Marie Skłodowska Curie programme. She also aims to get busy implementing plans for measures that could boost east European participation in Horizon Europe – such as a “hop-on” provision in EU draft legislation last year that would let researchers from poorer EU member-states get funding to join existing west European research projects. She does not, however, plan to re-open negotiations on the legislation; rather, her scope for action will be affected by how much money is ultimately made available in EU budget negotiations this year.

According to Gabriel, EU policy is often too focused on research and innovation, but education is also crucial. Progress on the Commission’s planned Green Deal, digitising the European economy and other challenges will be difficult to achieve without it, she said. 

In her European knowledge strategy, Gabriel said she also wants to “valorise” a fourth dimension in the triangle of knowledge: service to society. To that end the Commission will launch a communication campaign in schools to show students what scientists actually do and “stimulate” them to start a career in science. “Citizens need to know and be proud of what science and innovation does for Europe,” Gabriel said.

More ‘inclusiveness’

Gabriel, a Bulgarian who was formerly the EU’s digital affairs commissioner, said she dreams of a “more inclusive Europe” and will start looking for new ways to reduce the performance gap between new and old member states.

A large majority of the total funding under the EU’s research programme Horizon 2020 goes to projects in richer member states, while the 13 countries that joined the EU since 2004 get just 4.8 per cent. “Imagine how these figures are accepted in these member states,” she said, arguing this state of affairs must change in the new programme, Horizon Europe.

Because researchers’ salaries are calculated based on a national coefficient, Horizon Europe grantees in poorer member states are not happy to make less money than colleagues in north-west Europe. To solve that, the Commission will submit by the end of 2021 an analysis that will paint a “clear picture” of pay differences across member states.  

Until then, Gabriel wants all Marie Curie researchers in Horizon Europe to have the same salary in all member states. “This is completely new, but I have decided to do it,” she said.

Gabriel has greater powers to accomplish these changes because, for the first time, her job merges research, innovation and education into one portfolio – giving her control over the Commission Directorates-General that manage those activities. But accomplishing this will also require support from member states. “I hope words will become actions and I count on member states to support this measure.” Gabriel said.

To add to her fight for more a more inclusive Europe, the commissioner also said she hopes universities will bring more women into their leadership. “There aren’t too many women at the decisional level,” Gabriel said. “[Women] have a potential that Europe cannot afford to ignore,” she added.

Budget ‘mobilisation’

She already has some early signs of good will from the EU members. In November, just before she took up her new job, rumours started circulating in Brussels about a potential cut of €12 billion to Horizon Europe, from the €92.4 billion, seven-year budget originally proposed by the Commission. A few weeks later, after a panicked research and innovation community ramped up their lobby efforts across member states, the proposed cut was reduced to €3 billion. 

Gabriel called narrowing the cut to €3 billion an “enormous achievement”, but “we have to remain mobilised until the last minute.” The deal is not yet signed off by all member states – and in fact, budget analysts say, there is a big risk the plans all unravel again during the coming year. The research budget is only a piece of the entire Commission budget pie, and negotiations on the ultimate size have gotten tangled in politics between those countries that are net contributors to the EU budget and those that are net beneficiaries.

The Commission will continue to defend its proposed research budget, but Gabriel still hopes member states will ultimately support a higher sum, of €120 billion, proposed by the European Parliament. “It would be the best gift Europe could make for itself,” Gabriel said.

‘Operational’ synergies

She said that reducing the east-west innovation gap is a top priority. But it will not be done at the expense of excellence, which will remain the main evaluation principle in Horizon Europe. Gabriel excluded “pre-distribution of funds in national envelopes”.

According to her, many member states have made “remarkable” progress in trying to prop up their national research and innovation systems with higher investments and policy reforms. But the EU can do more to help. Gabriel said countries must pick up the pace and accelerate their investments and reforms, while the Commission will help them “uncover their potential”.

In Horizon Europe, the budget for widening – a set of measures meant to boost cooperation between researchers in poorer and richer member states – will be more than three times larger than it currently is under Horizon 2020, or €3 billion. Horizon Europe will also allow researchers in low-performing countries to join consortia in ongoing projects – the “hop-on” provisions – and will also benefit from administrative assistance before submitting their projects.

The Commission has tried in the past to help poorer member states use money from structural funds to finance their research and innovation projects. A prime example was the “seal of excellence”, an attempt by the Commission to help researchers whose Horizon 2020 applications were graded above the evaluation threshold, but which were not funded, to get money from structural funds.

While well-intended, the seal never really had the impact the Commission hoped for. According to Gabriel, there are member states that are not even aware of it, and those who are were inhibited by the burdensome paperwork needed to obtain exemptions from EU state aid rules. “We need something that is operational,” she said.

The new Commission plans to introduce an automatic exemption for projects with the seal of excellence and will work with regional authorities to make them aware of this possibility. “It will be important that at some point [regional authorities] really cooperate with researchers,” she said.

Unlike her predecessors, who embarked on ambitious projects – Máire Geoghegan-Quinn wanted to establish the Innovation Union, while Carlos Moedas wanted to leave behind a European Innovation Council – Gabriel says she envisions a pragmatic approach focused on fine-tuning R&D policies and making them all work together, instead of coming up with something completely new. “I believe in the force of small-scale projects and concrete measures,” she said.  

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