Smits: ‘Putting Science and Innovation at the top of Europe’s agenda’

7 January 2016

A new year has begun and the Dutch EU-Presidency is finally there. Science and innovation are high on the Dutch and on the European agenda. The right moment to discuss the challenges and opportunities in European research and innovation with Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission.

Q: Robert-Jan, you have worked already a long time at the Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) and experienced a lot of changes and developments within the European Commission. What will be your biggest challenge for the years to come?

In recent years, DG RTD has gradually become a policy Directorate General (DG). In the past, our DG was merely a “grant farm” completely focussed on spending the budgets of the different framework programmes, often seeing the spending as a goal in itself. It was only recently in our 30 year history that we discovered that we can do so much more for research and innovation in Europe, for instance by developing the right framework conditions which allow research and innovation to flourish at regional, national and European level. This resulted in the launch of the European Research Area (ERA) and the Innovation Union (IU). It also led to a more pro-active stance of our DG in discussions on new policy initiatives from our colleagues in the Commission which have potentially an enormous impact on research and innovation , such as the new Clinical Trials Directive or the one on Data Protection. This transition to become a policy DG meant separating policy development from programme and project implementation, whereby the first task stays inside the Directorate General and the second one is entrusted to a number of Executive Agencies, Joint Undertakings.

I see the role of DG RTD in future focussed on 3 objectives:

  1. Making research and innovation a central part of European economic policy making;
  2. Developing the right framework conditions for research and innovation;
  3. Robust strategic programming for Horizon 2020.

This transition of DG RTD towards being a policy DG means that our Directorate General will become much smaller while notably the Executive Agencies will grow in size. It is up to each staff member to decide what he or she wants to do in future: some prefer the more strategic work while others love the 'hands on' tasks related to project management.

Q: Can you say some more about this first objective: making research and innovation a central part of European economic policy?

Many studies have shown the relation between investment in research and innovation on the one hand and a strengthening of competitiveness, economic growth and job creation on the other. Some studies have arrived at the conclusion that some 62 % of growth in competitiveness is directly linked to research and innovation. Yet, the current economic models that our Finance Ministers use, do not give a proper place to research and innovation; some of these models even indicate that investments in research and innovation have negative effects, which I find surprising . I see the role of DG RTD to make the case for investments in research and innovation, not just by presenting anecdotal evidence, but by coming up with solid analysis. That is why we have launched a big initiative to adapt the current economic models so that one day research and innovation can get the place they deserve. As part of our efforts to make research and innovation an integral part of European policy making, we have been very active in shaping the 10 priorities of President Juncker. We have made important contributions to the Energy Union initiative, the Digital Single Market package, EFSI (the Juncker Investment Package) and the recently published Circular Economy proposal. We have made it clear that none of these initiatives can be successfully rolled out without research and innovation. Different from the past, our input was not just a summary of the calls we will publish, but a strategic contribution of what technological bottlenecks there are and what R&I could contribute to address these.

DG RTD has also stepped up its role in the European Semester through policy recommendations to Member States. We have also been successful by having EUROSTAT, the statistical office of the European Commission, classify expenditure on research as ' investment ' instead of 'cost '.

These policy ambitions of DG RTD were set out in the Communication “Research and Innovation as sources of renewed economic growth” of 2014, which was a joint initiative of the Commissioner for research and the one responsible of economic policy, a first time ever! Following this Communication, we have also launched the Policy Support Facility which will support Member States and associated countries to review their national science and innovation system. Spain and Bulgaria were the first countries that used this facility and many more are standing in line. Commissioner Moedas is a keen supporter of the Policy Support Facility.

Q: What about the Framework Conditions for Research and Innovation?

Boosting research and innovation is not just a matter of spending more money; it is also, and perhaps even more, a matter of putting in place the right framework conditions. For this reason we had launched ERA and its goal to abolish the barriers to mobility and to the free flow of knowledge. That is why we have launched the Innovation Union Flagship with its 34 actions such as the creation of a European Patent, speeding up standardisation and boosting innovative public procurement. That is why we have presented just before Christmas a staff working paper on the relation between regulation and innovation. This last initiative is fully in line with the REFIT-agenda of First Vice President Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s action on regulatory simplification.

It is of course clear that this all is undertaken in the context of the 3 O's priorities (Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World) of Commissioner Moedas, who notably wants to see rapid progress on Open Access.

Q:  As you know, Open Access will also be an important priority for the Dutch Presidency and our State secretary for research, Sander Dekker.

I am very happy to see that the Dutch Presidency has put Open Access high on the agenda. In Europe we have to make a big step forward in the coming six months, both as regards Open Access to Publications and Open Access to Data.  On Open Access to publications I had hoped that the Dutch would lead  by example, but the recently concluded deal between the Dutch universities and Elsevier could have been more ambitious, to put it mildly. On Open Access to research data I would like to see that all the funding agencies in Europe (including of course NWO) will make a data management plan (DMP) either obligatory or at least eligible for reimbursement and that DMPs will request that beneficiaries adhere to the FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable).

Q: You shaped the research programme Horizon 2020, a different programme compared to the previous framework programmes for research. Do you consider the implemented changes a success?

Horizon 2020 is an enormous success! The main reason for this is that H2020 was co-designed by its stakeholders. They see H2020 as ' their programme' and love it.  We have received up to date some 80.000 proposals and have 4.000.000 hits on the Horizon 2020 Participants Portal per month. The access to Horizon 2020 is easy, notably for newcomers, which count for 38 % of participants. Participants love the radical simplification we have introduced: electronic workflow, a first class portal, quicker ' time to grant ', VAT as eligible cost, easier rules for time recording etc. This you can call a real success. But the  80.000 proposals have resulted in a low success rate. This is why we will gradually introduce in the coming Work Programme (2016-2017) the two-stage evaluation procedure. Approximately 80% of the proposals will be rejected in the first phase and of the 20% proposals that make it to the second stage, only one third will be funded.

Besides the enormous over subscription, a major concern for me is the science divide in Europe. We have to avoid that the gap between the EU-13 and the EU-15 becomes bigger. The structural funds should therefore be deployed to their full extent to stimulate pockets of excellence and to build capacity. National reforms are also necessary, which requires making though political choices. What we will never do to increase the participation of certain countries in Horizon 2020 is to lower or change our criteria; these are and will remain based on scientific excellence.

Another concern that I would like to mention is the participation of countries from outside Europe in Horizon 2020. I really want to see many more. Notably the BRIC countries have not been very present in the first calls under Horizon 2020 which is notably due to the fact that we do not anymore fund participants from these countries. We are working towards a system of automatic national co-financing by these countries, which would be a major step forward. This is also very much in line with the “open to the world” ambition of Commissioner Moedas.

Science and innovation have brought prosperity to the world, now the world should invest and work together to address the grand societal challenges which are common to us all.

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