Opening up to an ERA of innovation: insights from the EC Conference on Research & Innovation

On June 22-23, the EU Commissioner for Research, Science & Innovation Carlos Moedas, launched the conference A New Start for Europe: Opening up to an Era of Innovation.

The conference brought together key players from the fields of research, business and innovation to discuss EU policies on Open Science, the European Research Area and key measures to build up an innovation ecosystem.

In a world characterized by open innovation and user innovation, where the digital and the physical are coming together, the main question is how Europe can open up an ERA of innovation, to bring jobs and growth in Europe.

Europe has an almost unlimited potential: it benefits from being one of the most open economies in the world and engaged in fundamental and curiosity-driven research. However, fragmentation and bureaucracy still represent a burden preventing some gains from scale, thus limiting process efficiency.

Open innovation, open science, openness to the world

Three are the strategic priorities envisaged during the conference:

  • Open innovation involves creating the right ecosystem for the knowledge economy to flourish, by bringing together key stakeholders, namely researchers, universities, companies, research centers, entrepreneurs, users, governments and civil society. A Stakeholder Platform, effectively reflecting society’s needs is a key instrument contributing to ERA policy making and implementation.
  • Open science represents the ongoing transition in the way research is performed and researchers cooperate: the new modus operandi witness higher transparency, openness, networking, collaboration, and a much stronger focus on knowledge-sharing. A sustainable European Research Infrastructure – essential to ensure access and re-use of research data – would still need a further synchronization of national and European roadmaps on research Infrastructures.
  • Openness to the world: Science diplomacy and global scientific collaboration are pivotal for Europe to remain competitive in the global arena and to have a leading voice in global debate.

In a world characterized by the stead rise of research excellence in areas as China and Latin America (among others), international cooperation should be a cross-cutting  priority to enhance innovation and tackle global issues.

In this perspective, the Commissioner has committed to launch a common research strategy for the South Atlantic; increasing the investments in projects as the SESAME with Jordan; as well as launching the Prima Initiative a joint research program on water and food in the Mediterranean region.

Further, the announcement at the Academic Summit of Heads of State and Government of the European Union and the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States EU-CELAC Summit of the creation of a Common Research Arena could represent a main step forward in the global partnership direction, to be followed by a similar initiative with China.

What has been proposed ?

In its keynote address the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Carlos Moedas has unveiled his ambitions to:

  • Creating a regulatory environment for innovation to flourish;
  • Investing in the next generations of great European innovative companies through the establishment of new European Funds;
  • Helping excellent researchers not eligible for funding under the Horizon 2020 to access Structural Funds;
  • Support innovation and SMEs under Horizon 2020; looking at best practices internationally and designing a new European Innovation Council to support excellence in innovation;

Where we stand now?

The Conference is to turn within the joint efforts for the completion of the European Research Area (ERA hereafter) – as requested by the European Council in 2011 – in order to create a genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation.

ERA is a unified research area, based on the internal market in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely. Five are the key priorities identified by the ERA reform agenda: more effective national research systems, optimal transnational co-operation and competition, an open labor market for researchers, and optimal circulation and transfer of scientific knowledge.

ERA’s objectives were endorsed by the March 2000 European Council and are anchored in the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon.

ERA’s overall aim is significantly improving Europe’s research performance, in order to promote growth and job creation, boosting competitiveness and increasing the effectiveness of the European public research system. If ERA was born as a physical scheme, the next step will be – according to the Mr Moedas – bringing together the physical and the digital.

The Commission increased its support to ERA through Horizon 2020 and by establishing the ERA Monitoring Mechanisms (EMM).  Horizon 2020 is the financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at making EU economy a Research and Innovation based arena. Research is recognized as a key investment for the future, and thus at the heart of EU’s blueprint for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

What prevents many projects from getting off the ground?

It is a widely held belief that Europeans have a more conformist and risk adverse mentality compared to their American counterparts. Whether this might be true, the main problem doesn’t only reside in cultural facets, while in the difference of the incentives offered. In the US, being unsuccessful with a project or a start-up is yet acceptable for entrepreneurs who engage in risky projects: a second chance is always offered, whereas in the EU failure and bankruptcy are a (life-long) stigma with serious legal implications: two aspects enormously preventing most of the people to invest in new projects.

Other bottlenecks in the regulatory framework, administrative burdens in science and innovation systems as well as low promotion of a venture capital culture are the main obstacles preventing new projects from getting off the ground.

Besides from the necessity to improve the framework conditions for innovation and research, another main imperative is represented by the need to overcome the main challenges in ERA: getting research results to market by increase commercialization as well as  favoring the recent trend In science which sees the scientific method becoming open, collaborative and participative. In this perspective the proposed launch of the RESAVER pension scheme will allow researchers to move more easily between States.

Furthermore, significant variations still emerge in the way research funding is being allocated between Member States and, moreover, agreed standards on the core principles of international peer review are still to be set.

Europe’s weight in international science and science diplomacy should be matched by a more active voice in global debates. Also, as Europe is not top ranking in some research areas, excellence should be promoted throughout the entire Horizon 2020 program, and not only though the ERC and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grants.

Towards ERA completion

Coupling research and innovation even further would ensure Europe to produce world-class science, driving economic growth and securing Europe’s global competitiveness, while at the same time addressing new global challenges.

Europe is very well positioned in the future due to its world-class entrepreneurs and scientists and to its diversity. The latter, in particular, should be conceived not as a factor of fragmentation, but as a source of competitive advantage.

Further, knowledge transfer processes are increasingly emerging in Europe and are proving to be key driver for innovation. In particular, scientific cooperation between governments-industries-universities – referred to as the ‘triple helix model’ – is delivering high results in terms of validation of scientific discoveries, knowledge transfer and research commercialization.

Evidence shows that openness and innovation go hand in hand: countries with open and attractive research systems are strong performers in terms of innovation.

Further, as witnessed by the Era Progress Report 2014 complying with ERA is associated with increased performance: in fact not only open and attractive research systems are more innovative but also  ERA compliant institutions  produce higher number of publications  and patent application for researchers.

At the Member States level a growing number of countries have introduced the ERA reforms into their National Reforms Programs and are now backing open access to research results publications and data, even though real or perceived barriers (legal and socio-cultural) still prevent an optimal re-use of such data.

Similarly, Stakeholder organizations and the EU are continuously supporting the ERA agenda. The EU, in particular, has embedded ERA in the European Semester; it is also providing substantial funds for the ERA measures and is promoting open recruitment, open access to publication and gender equality through the Horizon 2020 framework.

Hence, the Report confirms that the ERA Partnership is making good progress in delivering ERA by building the right ecosystem, increasing investments in R&D and pushing forward cooperation amongst key stakeholders.

The completion of ERA remains a gradual process and its efficacy mostly relies on the crucial role of Member States in effectively aligning national strategies and programs with the ERA key priorities. To support this alignment effort, in 2014 Member States’ Research Ministers agreed to develop an ERA roadmap by mid-2015, thus reaffirming their commitment towards Innovation Union as a key component of Europe 2020 strategy to create growth and jobs.

Leveraging on the potential of science and innovation to deliver sustainable solution to societal challenges: in a open, digital and global world this can represent a new start for Europe.