Smits: '2017: another crucial year for European science and innovation'

16 februari 2017

Embedding science and innovation in all EU policy activities is in full motion as well as the preparation for FP9. Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation underlines the importance of strong alliances between European institutions, Member States and stakeholders like Neth-ER. Together, they will also co-design the future of science and innovation in Europe. In this interview Smits looks ahead on what 2017 has in store.

The Council Conclusions on Open Science were one of the biggest achievements of The Netherlands EU Presidency you said in June 2016. However, there is a lot of (implementation) work to be done to achieve the goal of 100% Open Access to publications in 2020 and ensure an optimal sharing of data. How will the European Commission contribute to this work in 2017?

In implementing last year’s Council Conclusions on Open Science notably two aspects are key: Open Access to publications and Open Access to data. As regards Open Access to publications, Horizon 2020 leads by example and has clear rules on how to deal with this. At national level universities and publishers have negotiated or are negotiating so-called 'big deals'. Given the high stakes and that public money is involved, I believe that the national ministries and funding agencies (such as NWO) should become participants in these negotiations. After all, it is the funders who call the shots. They are able to change the game, as we have seen in the US with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and in the UK with the Wellcome Trust.

The second aspect is related to access to the data that are generated through publicly funded research and of course includes sharing them and making them inter-operable. Also here Horizon 2020 wants to lead by example. If all goes well, Horizon 2020 will generate 80 billion euro of data, but that will only be the case if these data are shared, stored and preserved. For this reason we have made it obligatory for Horizon 2020 beneficiaries to establish Data Management Plans (DMPs) for every project. Doing so will encourage a culture of 'data stewardship' in the research world. The costs of implementing Data Management Plans are eligible for funding under Horizon 2020.  Although we do not impose a specific template for DMP, we give guidance and tell our beneficiaries to make their data FAIR proof. By the end of this year, we also will issue rules on where the data should be stored (in any case, never on local systems). Connecting the different repositories will be one of the tasks of the European Open Science Cloud that will connect data repositories around Europe and create identifiers. Many of the ESFRI projects, already show good practice and will be involved as cornerstones.  As part of the European Science Cloud we are also stepping up our investments in High Performance Computing and have launched the Quantum Computing Flagship.

Open Science is part of our 3 O's policy: Open Science, Open Innovation and Open to the World. The main deliverable of our Open Innovation Policy will be the establishment of the European Innovation Council (EIC) for which a preparatory action will be launched in 2018. Open to the World is about our ambition to step up cooperation with third countries and to boost science diplomacy.

When we interviewed you last year, you mentioned that it was your ambition to step up the role of DG RTD in European policy making, for instance by making important contributions to the Energy Union Initiative, the Digital Single Market strategy, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and the European Semester. The Commission announced to continue this work in 2017 in its Commission Work Programme 2017. How do you look back upon these accomplishments and how do you look forward to 2017?

This year, we are stepping up our involvement in the European Semester, will roll out the Accelerating Communication (focus on renewable energy) as part of the Energy Union and will make progress on the European Open Science Cloud as part of the DSM strategy. Our PRIMA proposal (aimed at tackling the issue of water use in agriculture in the Mediterranean area) is a major contribution to President Juncker's priority of strengthening Europe's role in the world. 2017 will also be the year in which we will start with the implementation of the 'innovation principle'.

During the Netherlands EU Presidency, Council Conclusions were drawn on the introduction of the innovation principle for assessing the potential impact of new Commission legislative initiatives on innovation. We have envisaged testing this principle in 2017 in 4-5 new initiatives from other Directorates-General (DG’s). This means that in the framework of 'impact assessments' (part of the Better Regulation agenda) we will assess the potential impact of these initiatives on innovation.

Besides this, the mechanism for scientific advice to policy making (SAM) will reinforce the science  base of policy making.

Can you say something about the state of preparation of FP9?

Another important activity for this year is the preparatory work for the Ninth Framework Programme (FP9), that will run from 2021 onwards. This work consists of three building blocks: the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020, a foresight study of the Bohemia Consortium and a report on the impact of research and innovation on competitiveness and growth. These building blocks will feed into the work of the High Level Group under the chairmanship of Pascal Lamy, which will present its report in June, in time for the big stakeholder conference on July 3rd. This conference will be followed by a political debate between ministers in the Informal Competitiveness Council about the lessons learnt on Horizon 2020 and on the future FP9. The Commission’s proposal for FP9 is expected early 2018, after the presentation by the European Commission of the Multiannual Financial Framework (the next EU budget) by the end of this year. But let us not forget that we still have 3 years (and some 30 billion) to go under Horizon 2020. In other words, co-design with us FP9, but keep on sending in proposals for Horizon 2020!

You have been a main driver of the simplification of rules and procedures with Horizon 2020. Last year you mentioned a gradual introduction of the two-stage evaluation procedure in the Work Programmes of Horizon 2020 to tackle one of the biggest problems of Horizon 2020: oversubscription. What is your view on the two-stage evaluation procedure?

The simplification of rules and procedures has been THE success of Horizon 2020. With the single funding model, faster time to grant, less reporting requirements, electronic signature and the Participant Portal, we have done miracles and our beneficiaries appreciate this. Our biggest problem remains, however, oversubscription.

The success rates of Horizon 2020 are far too low with an average of 14%. The large amount of time and costs that researchers have to invest in their proposals has to be rewarded. The only way to solve the issue of oversubscription seems to be introducing more prescriptive calls and introducing the two-stage evaluation procedure. Notably the two-stage calls procedure works well. In a first phase an outline proposal has to be submitted whereby on average 80% of the proposals are rejected. In the second round, when a full proposal has to be submitted, the chances of success are much higher at 30-40%. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable that the 'time to grant' will increase as a result of the two-stage procedure. For the years to come both solutions - more prescriptive calls and two-stage evaluations - will be applied. I hope this will help to tackle the issue of oversubscription. Another factor that hopefully will contribute to an increase of the success rates for applications is the amount of money available for the calls to come. The last package of Work Programmes (2018-2020) will have the largest share of funds to divide, which definitely will have a positive impact on the success rates.

More information:

Artikel Neth-ER: Raadsconclusies over Open Science, KP7 en innovatieprincipe
Artikel Neth-ER: Misschien wel het grootste succes van het Nederlands Voorzitterschap?
Artikel Neth-ER: De focus van Brussel in 2017
Interview Neth-ER: Smits: ‘Putting Science and Innovation at the top of Europe’s agenda’

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