Wake-up call for European research and innovation

At the 5th European Innovation Summit, big names in research agreed that it was high time for a ‘wake up Europe’ call. A five-point declaration addressed to European Union policy-makers and member states was agreed after several speakers sought to identify ways to remove obstacles in the way of Europe becoming a successful innovation economy.

The summit was organised by Knowledge4Innovation, or K4I, and was held at the European Parliament from 30 September to 2 October.

The tone was set by former Polish prime minister and current president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, who said that "on the global map of innovation the EU is still closer to the Valley of Death than the Silicon Valley”.

Buzek, who is vice-chair of the K4I forum governing board, said that “too often, great ideas of European scientists die before they are implemented by industry".

“We need to revive the EU economy from innovative lethargy,” he said. “Let us take together four steps: we need to focus on key enabling technologies, strengthen the role of business in defining EU research, create a European innovation partnership in transport, and use the potential of our young people.”

The agreed final text called on Europe’s research stakeholders to:
  • • Deliver on widely accepted and appreciated new instruments and policies (2014-20) in support of innovation.
  • • Build a culture of 'fail-fast' (ie detecting potential failures and responding swiftly to avoid them), ‘risk tolerance’ and ‘fast capital’ to cross the 'Valley of Death'.
  • • Create a predictable policy environment and embed innovation as a principle in all measures and decisions.
  • • Engage in joint thinking and acting across sectors and along the value chain.
  • • Change what they do: a deeply changed mindset is needed at all levels – among companies, administrations and citizens.
Commissioners speak out

One of several European commissioners who spoke was Janez Potocnik, commissioner for the environment, and he called for four actions to promote a circular economy focused on resource efficiency.

"We need to build a shared understanding of the eco-innovation challenges. We need to develop shared targets and milestones. We need to measure progress toward this vision and targets. We need to address barriers to innovation in a concrete way," he said.

The commissioner for energy, Günther H Oettinger, told delegates that “it is not just about research funding, it is not just about technology development, but it is about an integrated policy from basic research to market uptake that needs to be developed”.

Johannes Hahn, commissioner for regional policy, said that “innovation is of paramount importance for the economic growth of regions and countries”. It was up to member states and regions to find what they were good at, he said.

Other speakers included Hannes Swoboda, a member of the European Parliament, who noted: “On the one hand, Europe has to develop a new consciousness when collaborating with the United States. On the other hand, Europe needs to build and improve its own innovation eco-system in order to remain globally competitive.”

Dr Burton Lee, a lecturer in European entrepreneurship and innovation at Stanford School of Engineering, said: “Europe’s core crisis is a crisis of innovation and not a debt crisis. It is a crisis of chronic poor performance in creating disruptive products, new companies, new university models and new jobs.”

Europe’s students were “largely disengaged from the innovation agenda”, he added, although there were excellent role models in Finland and the United Kingdom, “where empowered students have formed their own entrepreneurship clubs that are important players in their national innovation eco-systems”.

Director general of the European Crop Protection Association and K4I president, Friedhelm Schmider, said that it was “essential for the EU to promote a better integration of science and policy-making, moving away from hazard-based legislation and towards a regulatory policy based on robust science and a risk-based approach”.

Europe was capable of unlocking its innovation potential “by working together, embracing a ‘can-do’ attitude and by ensuring we focus on maintaining and creating research and development jobs here in Europe”.