EU aims for the stars with new €100 billion innovation fund

Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, during a speech in the World Economic Forum. [World Economic Forum / Flickr]

European Commission detailed on Thursday (7 June) plans to strengthen its science and innovation fund, focusing on disruptive innovations and financing “a couple of good missions” that would inspire people as the moon-landing project did, commissioner Carlos Moedas said.

On the eve of the presentation Moedas, who is in charge of Research, Science and Innovation, told a group of European media, including EURACTIV, that the Commission would not decide what missions to pursue.

Instead, the executive would set the criteria to select bold and achievable projects that were , also “inspiring” for taxpayers. A mission board composed of member state representatives and experts would pick the ‘big ideas’ for the next decade, he explained.

The Commission’s proposed Horizon Europe programme for 2021-2027, which will now be discussed by governments and MEPs, will have €100 billion to support European scientists and projects, compared with €78 billion under the existing Horizon 2020 initiative.

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Innovation was a top priority for the world’s most powerful nations at the G20 meeting last September, in Hangzhou. However, Europe still has some “negative trends” to address, says Commissioner Carlos Moedas.

That would make it one of the biggest winners in the new multiannual financial framework (MFF), the EU’s long-term budget, since there will be more money for fewer countries, after the UK departure from the EU.

The mission-driven angle is part of a new effort to allocate more resources to address societal challenges, “areas and sectors where you cannot have national solutions”, Moedas told reporters..

The EU executive proposed five clusters to channel the money and efforts: health, digital and industry, climate and energy, food and resources, and inclusive and secure society.

Disruptive innovation

As part of the review of the science and research pot, the Commission also wants to support more disruptive innovation to create new markets and more jobs. To that end, it would put aside more funds for the embryonic European Innovation Council (EIC).

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Ken Gabriel has dedicated his life to innovation and entrepreneurship at Google, and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For Gabriel innovation boils down to “satisfying an unmet need”.

The commission was inspired by the successful example of DARPA, the US agency responsible for ground-breaking innovations such as the Internet, the GPS and stealth technology.

“Our objectives are the same”, Moedas said referring to DARPA. But he explained that the EIC would be more flexible to accept “any idea” from researchers and developers, while the US agency determines in its tenders the research projects.

The big push for disruptive innovation is gaining traction in Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron is a convinced supporter, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also joined the crusade for more cutting-edge innovations.

“I feel I have their support”, Moedas said.

In order to be sure initiatives don’t overlap, the Portuguese commissioner expressed his willingness to modify his EIC proposals.

But he would not accept turning the new council into a inter-governmental body, where member states would redistribute funds according to their national interests regardless of the research priorities or the added value. “It has to be at EU level”, he stressed.

UK won’t profit

One of the issues to addressed now is how to integrate the UK in the EU’s research projects after the divorce.

Moedas was hopeful that “we will find a solution on the way forward” to keep the UK’s well-regarded scientific community on board.

But the commissioner recalled that the agreement would be “balanced” as it is with all third countries in the existing Horizon 2020. Non-EU countries are not allowed to make “profit” out of their cooperation, he added.

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That means that the UK would only get what it contributes to the research fund. Today, the country is the largest beneficiary of the programme.

“These are general rules”, Moedas explained. Cooperation would depend on the overall EU-UK agreement governing post-Brexit relations.

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