Special task force to lead new European Innovation Council

28 Feb 2019 | News

The Commission’s new ‘Task Force EIC’ would include staffers from both its research and SME agencies, as part of a major restructuring of the EU’s research organisation

In creating a new innovation council, the European Commission is experimenting not just in policy but also in management – running it with a special task force to involve staff members from two agencies dealing with research and SME affairs, according to Science|Business sources.

The European Innovation Council, to launch soon as a pilot programme, is an initiative to scale up little tech companies into world-class “unicorns,” or start-ups valued at more than $1 billion each. It is a signature project of EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, and will use a novel mix of grants, loans and equity.

And it will be run by staff from the Commission’s executive agencies for research and small business, merged into a special “Task Force EIC.” The Research Executive Agency staffers involved currently work on a programme, Future Emerging Technologies-Open, currently overseen by the Commission’s digital department, DG Connect. The SME Executive Agency staff work on a separate programme, the SME Instrument, currently overseen by DG Research.

The combined structure – yet to be approved formally by the Commission – is part of a broader effort by the director general for research, Jean-Eric Paquet, to increase cooperation between his department and other parts of the Commission. Rivalry between DGs Research and Connect, in particular, has been a source of frequent complaints from companies and universities that have to deal with both for policy or funding. While not unusual in Brussels, multi-agency task forces are usually created for special problems, such as the Greek debt crisis.

The task force is widely expected be headed by Jean-David Malo, a French Eurocrat who has been working for the past few years inside DG Research on new ways to finance innovation in Europe. Under the plan developed so far, he would report to Paquet. But an oversight structure would also include Roberto Viola, director general for Connect.  The task force could eventually be spun off into a separate executive agency.

Since becoming director general last year, Paquet has been planning a major reorganisation of his department. Plans for that reorganisation are nearing completion and are expected to be submitted in late March for formal Commission adoption, and to take effect by May 1st. So far, most managers – directors and unit heads – have been selected to fill out the new departmental organigram. Work is now focusing on selecting deputy unit heads, clarifying each unit’s specific missions, and ironing out operational details.

The Brussels rumour mill

The reorganisation has been a source of intense rumour in the small world of university and business groups that tap into the Commission’s massive, €77 billion, seven-year Horizon 2020 programme. Though it’s mostly a lot of internal Brussels cuisine, the reorganisation will affect how the programme’s final 20 months play out, and how the follow-on programme, Horizon Europe, gets shaped from its 2021 start. The research DG, which had 1,300 staff as of January 2018, manages the third-largest operational budget in Brussels, after agriculture and regional development.

A major purpose of the reorganisation, Paquet has said previously, is to boost “synergies” between Horizon and other EU programmes. As such, his plan is to vary from the normal pattern of line-management in the Commission and create a four-person “board” to manage major policy priorities inside the DG. The board members are himself and three deputy directors-general, Austrian Wolfgang Burtscher, British Patrick Child, and Estonian Signe Ratso.  While changes could still be made before the plan is finalised, Burtscher’s responsibilities are expected to include open science and policy transitions, Child’s to include implementation and sustainable development, and Ratso’s to cover open innovation and outreach. Reporting to Paquet are eight line-directors with different functions (see below.)

One of the biggest unresolved issues is who will fill a new director-level position as chief negotiator for Horizon Europe association – in essence, negotiating deals for non-EU members to participate in the programme. At present, 16 countries such as Switzerland and Israel are associated with the programme, meaning they pay some money into a common pot for which their researchers can compete for funding on the same terms as EU researchers.  The Commission has said it is interested in expanding the number of countries – and some informal, preliminary meetings have already taken place with officials from Canada, Japan, Australia and other nations.

Martin Selmayr, the Commission’s powerful secretary general, has decreed that Horizon negotiations will be part of broader “umbrella” discussions with these countries on their future relations. The issue is particularly delicate in the case of the UK, which – if it does exit the EU this year – would fall into this new international category.

For the most part, the expected line-up of operational directors reporting to Paquet has few major changes from the past – in subject matter, at least, though not necessarily in the way they would operate with the new Board structure Paquet is planning. Subject to Commission approval, they are expected to be:

  • Kurt Vandenberghe, supervising overall Horizon strategy and planning. He would also, temporarily, manage “outreach” to research organisations and infrastructure, as well as open science and single research market issues. 
  • Anna Panagopoulou, providing legal, audit, business process, IT and other common services for the rest of the DG and its executive agencies, such as the European Research Council.
  • John Bell, managing policy and programmes for oceans, climate, circular- and bio- economy research.
  • Clara de la Torre, handling energy, transport, nuclear and low-emission industry research.
  • Irene Norstedt, managing health and social sciences. She is currently acting director for health research.
  • Peter Dröll, managing industrial investment policy, exploitation and intellectual property rights, plus advanced manufacturing and biotechnology, advanced materials and nanotechnology, and next-generation industrial technologies (“Industry 5.0”).
  • Priscila Fernandez-Cañadas, providing logistics, support services, budget, procurement and other administrative functions for the rest of the DG.

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