Horizon 2020: taking the long view towards a more competitive Europe

28 February 2012 Author: EIFonline

In this talk at the EIF dinner debate on 28 February Robert Madelin urges the audience to consider Horizon 2020 not only in context of present budgetary challenges but also taking the longer view towards future European competitiveness.

He pointed out that while everyone tends to see their pet issue as "the" issue, really the bigger question for everyone is what the future Europe will look like. Looking out ahead it would seem that Europe will be faced with much more competition in future. In order to maintain a leading position in terms of innovation, scientific, and industrial excellence there are strategic investments which must be made now. At the same time, the right balance must be struck. Especially in tight economic circumstances the public purse must be handled judiciously and, as Madelin points out, things that are good for commercial interests shouldn't be neutral in terms of societal outcomes.

In astrophysics we find the concept of the gravity well. Basically, the idea is that the minimum amount of energy required to achieve escape velocity is absolutely fixed in relation to the mass of the planet you're trying to leave. Rocket fuel is expensive but unless you put at least this minimal amount on the rocket you'll neverachieve orbit. With member states feeling the budgetary squeeze they are (quite understandably) pushing for concomitant reductions in expenditures on the EU level. DG INFSO takes the position that 80 billion is really the minimum investment necessary in order to achieve the ambitious goals of Horizon 2020 and strategically position Europe for future competitiveness.

Professor Gonzalo León speaks both from his experience as a direct participant in EU-funded R&D programmes and also from his experience on the policy side overseeing such programmes. He asserts that past approaches have been fragmented and pushes for a more integrated approach with Horizon 2020. He sees certain societal challenges that can only be addressed through better use of ICT. International research cooperation will be necessary to achieve these goals and the Horizon 2020 framework should allow for flexibility in this area. Overall, he sees Horizon 2020 as it stands as a big improvement over past efforts but suggests that there is still time to improve the framework in some key areas.

Paul Jenkins presents the viewpoint of a commercial partner with extensive experience participating in past EU R&D; BT has been part of FP4, FP5, FP6, & FP7. He gives an overview of several past high-profile research projects. He says that it's not enough to develop innovative solutions without addressing the problem of how to get these innovations fielded in the market so that citizens can actually benefit from them. He pleas for a less stringent approach to auditing, pointing out that the requirements used in past projects were drawn from regulation of more general public tenders. He sees these past requirements as limits not fitting with agile R&D programmes and mentions that BT is still responding to audits from FP6 (which ended in 2006!)

Of course, there is a critical need for accountability when public funds are involved but if the goal is investing for innovation too many lawyers and accountants can badly undermine the efficiency of this investment. He suggests that Horizon 2020 can improve on previous efforts by making the requirements explicit from the outset and that, in the spirit of mutual trust, when points arise which need interpretation other stakeholders should be part of those discussions; not only Commission officials.

Rix Groenboom sees the bottom-up approach of Horizon 2020 as a real plus. He points out that SMEs typically have their hands full with just running their business and keeping their customers happy. Projects getting the greenlight under previous programmes have tended to be massive (on the scale of millions of euros) and so in the past SMEs have been largely excluded from participation as the amount of resources (human and financial) which they'd be required to devote put them at too great a risk.

He sees potential in a more agile model and underlines the entrepreneurial culture of the US. He sees the precautionary perspective of typical European customers as a significant barrier to the successful rollout of innovative ICT solutions. Perhaps, he says, that isn't what this audience would like to hear. The fact is thatsolutions aren't much good unless they actually make an impact on peoples' lives and so plans for deployment should get equal consideration alongside pure R&D.

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