Education and research minister Mailis Reps on her concerns for the European Innovation Council, and how to make research missions work
Mailis Reps, 43 and born in Tallinn, is serving her third term as Estonia’s education and research minister. Here, she shares her thoughts on the EU’s 2021-2027 Horizon Europe programme, the successor to Horizon 2020.
Q: What is your overall impression of the programme?
Very good, especially taking into account difficult negotiations on the so-called multi-financial framework.
If Europe wants to be a respected partner for US and Asia, we need to stand for an integrated European Research Area. In this light, the participation gap in EU research programmes is worrisome. There is still this unexploited potential of excellent research all around Europe, especially in the newer EU-13 countries.
We need to ensure that excellent ideas are not rejected because of a lack of information or complicated administrative procedures. Therefore, I think that measures to widen participation are increasingly important, as they open up new possibilities and allow us to integrate newcomers into established networks.
The research programme is like a puzzle – European competitiveness will never be complete if some parts of the puzzle are missing. National research systems offer these missing pieces.
Q: What do you think about the European Innovation Council? Some member states seem unhappy that it may replace a popular programme, the SME Instrument.
I find the idea of supporting scale up, market-creating, innovative SMEs and start-ups with ambitious business plans most promising.
The question is how the new funder should work. The SME Instrument in Horizon 2020 has been successful so far and, hopefully, the EIC will build on this and develop it even further.
However, certainly some obstacles need to be resolved. For the venture capital markets and start-ups the speed of the process is of utmost importance – how will the Commission ensure that the instrument is not stuck in bureaucracy?
The proposal to concentrate on radical breakthrough innovations makes me wonder, also, about whether some promising incremental innovations will be shifted aside.
The outline agreement reached in the Council on November 30 is challenging. I am still not fully convinced that opening up fast-track [evaluation] procedures was the best step forward. But let´s give it a chance, so long as the idea is to be carefully studied and piloted.
Let´s just not create another instrument with extremely low success rates – our businesses must remain motivated by EU funding instruments.
Q: What do you think about the new research missions concept? Are there any missions you’d like to see funded?
I think that missions could provide a great opportunity to bring about a change in certain areas. In Estonia, we have several good examples where society has committed to achieving a common goal. “World Clean-up Day”, for example, started from a small initiative, when four per cent of the population came out to clean the entire country of illegally dumped waste in a matter of hours. This civic initiative has now spread to 150 countries involving five per cent of the world population and millions of volunteers.
This mission is purely based on civic initiative, where the will and commitment of the people has been the primary engine – not any state, strategy or funding. Another example is the digitisation agenda in Estonia, which was developed by certain opinion leaders together with policymakers to make e-governance and e-Estonia a reality.
These cases demonstrate that there is a future for missions, so long as the effort involves scientists or innovators and broader society. I think that this is the most challenging part – there is no room for failure in setting up missions; they should not turn into another “Brussels’ initiative”. Therefore, we should be extremely careful when planning missions. They must address a wider public and the public must feel ownership of them. Plastic-free oceans, for example, can never be achieved without changing people’s behaviour.
And so, the process of defining a mission should be open and transparent. The way mission areas have evolved so far does not exactly follow these principles. I suggest that more time needs to be taken for preparation – to really get things right.
Q: What about industry partnerships? Member states have said they want to “rationalise”, or reduce, these partnerships. But which ones should be done away with?
Estonia strongly supports the rationalisation of EU partnerships. This area has become so complicated and vague, that it is difficult to ensure we reach expected impacts in the most effective and efficient ways.
We paid great attention to the topic during our EU presidency (July-December 2017), and I think that together with all member states we managed to bring forward some good proposals on how to proceed with this.
I am not in a position to indicate any specific partnerships, but I think that the process of selecting partnerships should firstly allow us to define the priorities for the whole programme and then to use the criteria proposed by the ERAC working group to select the partnerships. Moreover, I think that we should foresee clear strategies for phasing out partnerships.
Q: There is a big question mark hanging over the legal basis for Horizon Europe – the Commission has proposed a dual basis, but member states appear to reject this. What do you suggest can be done to resolve the issue?
Horizon Europe should be a clear, focused and targeted framework programme. Estonia supports the opinion of the Council Legal Service for a single legal basis, but it is more important to consider how to proceed. I believe that it might not be the best idea to engage in an inter-institutional battle on this matter. Instead, I believe that our current efforts should go into talks over the essence of the framework programme and the special programme, as there are many important elements on the table, and a lot of progress to be made.
Q: What do Estonian researchers and businesses want from this programme?
Estonia has been rather successful in Horizon 2020. Our return per citizen has been around 150 per cent higher than for the EU-28 on average.
However, the devil is in the detail. There are some important measures where our participation is still below expectations. When it comes to the European Research Council grants, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships, or partnership initiatives, our participation is rather low.
For our researchers, Horizon Europe is the first and foremost instrument for international cooperation and networking. As a small country, Estonia’s success lies in specialisation in some specific fields, where our research groups are at a world class level, but they need to be further connected to the researchers and innovators in Europe in order to make an impact. Horizon Europe offers our researchers and innovative SMEs access to “big things” that a country the size of Estonia could never offer.
The biggest concern for our stakeholders has been the increasing number of “closed clubs”. It is extremely hard to prove yourself to the established networks. The more participants, the tougher the competition – and so it is understandable why existing networks do not want to open up and let newcomers in. However, this attitude is definitely destroying the competitiveness puzzle. That is why Estonia supports the idea that in Pillar II of the programme, the collaborative projects should be the primary instrument for opening up of research and innovation networks. Is it realistic to increase the budget for this section?
Could there ever be enough investment into research and innovation? I think we should be realistic and look at the Horizon Europe proposal in the context of the wider MFF negotiations. The key question is how the programme will create synergies with other EU programmes: be it structural funds, the CAP, Digital Europe, or the European Defence Fund. If there is a horizontal focus on research and innovation throughout the EU budget, then it will be possible to achieve the common objectives of solidarity, increased competitiveness and growth without increasing the Horizon Europe budget.