EUROPE: New innovation agenda launched

When she became the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn added 'innovation' to her portfolio, helping bright ideas from academia make the commercial light of day. Now she has launched a new innovation agenda, aiming to create what she calls an EU Innovation Union.

This "will use public sector intervention to stimulate the private sector and to remove bottlenecks which stop ideas reaching the market. These include lack of finance, fragmented research systems and markets, under-use of public procurement for innovation and slow standard setting", said a European Commission communiqué.

The idea, according to a 'communication' released by Brussels, is to keep investment flowing from conception to the marketplace.

This detailed policy paper said: "There are a number of major market gaps. During the technology transfer and start-up phase, new companies face a 'valley of death' where public research grants stop and it is not possible to attract private finance. Public support aiming to leverage private seed and start-up funds to fill this gap is currently too fragmented and intermittent or its management lacks the necessary expertise."

Appointed in February, Irish Geoghegan-Quinn has worked fast in proposing this major flagship innovation policy.

Speaking at its launch ceremony, she said: "As we emerge from crisis in the teeth of fierce global competition, we face an innovation emergency. If we do not transform Europe into an 'innovation union', our economies will wither on the vine while ideas and talents go to waste. Innovation is the key to building sustainable growth and fairer and greener societies."

ERAB, the European Research Advisory Board, recently called in the bulletin Science Business for "an ambitious Apollo programme, man-on-the-moon-style project, to galvanise public interest in innovation and R&D [research and development], urging that public procurement be used to stimulate innovation".

Even if the concept of innovation and the relationship to 'the knowledge triangle' have been on the agenda of the European Union for many years, the flagship proposal contains new directions, and a concrete timetable for implementation of many of the 34 proposals tabled in the document.

The ambition is high. Europe needs at least a million new researchers over the next decade, in addition to those who have to be substituted for a generation of researchers going into retirement, the document argues.

There is a strong call for member states' involvement: "By the end of 2011, member states should have strategies in place to train enough researchers to meet their national R&D targets."

There is urgent need to modernise the financial sector in Europe, and national and regional innovation systems need to be less fragmented than today.

To achieve an 'innovation union', the document states, a sea change is needed, based on "political leadership, bold decisions and determined implementations".

By the end of 2011, the commission "will support an independent international ranking system to benchmark university performance...which will allow the best performing European universities to be identified."

This initiative and the document produced by Geoghegan-Quinn are background for the argument of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso when he gave his State of the Union Speech in Strasbourg on 7 September 2010.

"Investing in innovation also means promoting world-class universities in Europe. I want to see them attracting the brightest and the best from Europe and the rest of the world. We will take an initiative on the modernisation of European universities," he said.

The innovation union proposal is filled with suggestions on methodology and monitoring mechanisms. "A forum on forward looking activities" should be created; a venture capital fund should be made accessible throughout Europe; and the Commission would appoint a leading figure to carry out a wide-ranging review of ongoing changes in financial markets and the impact of these changes on innovation in the real economy.

It addresses the complex patents situation, stating patenting is at least 15 times more expensive in Europe than in the United States, mainly because of translation and higher legal fees.

To achieve its many objectives, the policy paper proposes creating European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs). These would essentially be coordinating groups charged with inspiring and generating action and funding. They would not be new funds themselves, but "frameworks bringing together main actors, policies and actions at EU and national levels, from research to market, around common objectives and targets".

Topics identified as potential EIP projects are 'an ageing population', 'the effect of climate change' and 'reduced availability of resources'.

The proposal discusses the sharing of responsibilities between the European Council of Ministers, the European Parliament, the European Commission and EU member states and proposes a better utilisation of the EU's structural funds for regional development.

"To better use the EUR86 billion (US$120 billion) of structural funds programmed for research and innovation for 2007-13, it will propose a framework [guidance] for post-2013 structural funds with more focus on innovation," said the communiqué.

The first European innovation partnership to be selected is in the field of active and healthy ageing. This pilot project will be launched in early 2011, with the objective "to extend by two years by 2020 the proportion of our lives in which we enjoy good health".

More partnerships will follow in areas such as energy, 'smart' cities and mobility, water efficiency, non-energy raw materials and sustainable and productive agriculture. The commission will provide seed funds to attract private funding.

Under the policy, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) will play a key role. "The EIT should set out a strategic innovation agenda in order to transfer experience from the training of doctorate candidates in the KICs [the institution's knowledge and innovation communities] to other universities".

Katrien Maes, executive director of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), told University World News her organisation supported the political ambition of the innovation union proposal. "If this can lead to better conditions for research in Europe, that is good", she said.

However, she expressed caution. This is not the first major research initiative at EU level of course: "But the introduction of new mechanisms and funding schemes increases the risk for multiplication of efforts between these initiatives.

"For instance, could the healthy-ageing pilot project interfere both with joint programming initiatives which are supposed to be in the hands of the member states, and with framework 7 [the EU's seventh framework programme on research] priorities? EIPs must not be developed as yet another layer to be added to existing ones, which would create an even bigger morass of European projects," Maes added.

Commenting on the 'innovation union' proposal Riikka Heikinheimo, director of TEKES, the Finnish funding agency for technology and innovation at the Finnish liaison office for EU R&D at the Embassy of Finland in Brussels, said:

"Knowledge based on the traditional industry structure is not sufficient any longer. What is needed is also horizontal knowledge, and to combine technical and non-technical competencies. For instance, to combine leadership development or competence in design in developmental processes is now a multifunctional area for a new innovation praxis. Service innovation has to be supported.

"It is good that someone at European level has noticed this".