Commissioners mull joint innovation paper

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The EU commissioners for innovation and industry are drawing up a new policy paper to feed into a top-level debate on the direction of innovation strategy.

The document will be presented by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, and Antonio Tajani, commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, on 3 March.

It is likely to reflect much of the thinking that has gone into the European innovation action plan – which Tajani's services have been working on – while incorporating the views of Geoghegan-Quinn's research directorate.

The paper will bring a broad approach to solving innovation "bottlenecks" and is likely to tie together a range of problems from research mobility to public procurement, according to Geoghegan-Quinn.

Briefing journalists on her first full day in office, the innovation commissioner listed a string of key areas where she intends to focus her efforts, including the European Research Area (ERA), helping business access funds, intellectual property rights and public procurement.

Pressed on how she might succeed where others have failed – in areas such as patent reform and helping SMEs to tap into research funds – she paid tribute to her predecessors but said the political weight attached to innovation means the time is ripe to tackle long-standing challenges.

"Europe has had a wake-up call. Innovation is the key to recovery and you can see this in the Europe 2020 strategy, in President Barroso's paper on economic growth based on knowledge and innovation, and in Herman Van Rompuy's commitment to making R&D and innovation key themes of the autumn European Council," she said.

The commissioner, who said she is not afraid to stray outside her brief to get things done, promised not to be "confined by research and innovation" in her new cross-cutting portfolio.

Communication key to public buy-in

Geoghegan-Quinn pledged to "put communication at the heart" of research and innovation policy, complaining that much of the good work done by scientists goes unnoticed by the general public.

This, she said, makes high-minded innovation policies seem remote to citizens despite the fact that it can have a major impact on daily life. The commissioner said scientists should be encouraged to engage more with the public, and she urged the media to play a role in communicating the results of research.

She said that in preparing for her parliamentary hearing she learned about major research programmes which impact on citizens' lives – but she was shocked that she had never heard of them before.

However, she rejected the suggestion that scientific expertise is needed in order to crack the research brief, saying she would bring a fresh perspective to the role.

"I don't for one minute accept that you have to be a scientist to be an ambassador for science," she said.

Revitalising EU science funding

Part of the communication gap that has grown up between science and the wider public stems from the proliferation of jargon and acronyms used in research policy debates.

One example, said Geoghegan-Quinn, is the failure of the big-budget EU framework programmes for research to capture the public imagination. She said the current programme – known as FP7 – is under review.  Some of the lessons learned from the evaluation could be implemented immediately, while others would be factored into the next programme.

She also revealed plans to rename the framework programme to make it more appealing. Rather than calling it "FP8", Geoghegan-Quinn said she is seriously looking at more meaningful nametags.

Meanwhile, she reiterated her plan to tap into structural funds to help member states improve research infrastructure and their skills base.

Another area the commissioner pledged to focus on is increasing private investment in innovation by attracting venture capital to Europe to ensure research is translated into marketable products by European firms.

In September 2009, the European Commission announced its plan to publish a European Innovation Act before spring 2010. The plan is being drafted by the EU executive's enterprise arm – which will soon be renamed 'Industry and Entrepreneurship'. 

The drive towards a more coherent innovation strategy took place during the 2009 European Year of Creativity and Innovation (EYCI), which culminated in the publication of a 'manifesto' for innovation. 

A further effort to streamline EU policy in this area came with the appointment of the first European commissioner with responsibility for innovation.

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