Geoghegan-Quinn: We must communicate our R&D

MGQ portrait interview pic.jpg

Europe is doing "wonderful" research but has failed to communicate this to the public, EU Innovation Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn told EURACTIV in an interview. She wants to rename 'FP8', the European Commission's research programme, to make it more meaningful to citizens and is pledging to make funds more accessible to small businesses.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is European commissioner for research, innovation and science.

She was speaking to Gary Finnegan.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Scientists are already familiar with the jargon surrounding EU research funds, the largest of which is the framework programme (FP7), but you've said you want to rename FP8. Is this part of an effort to improve science communication with the public?

In one way it is. For me, one of the difficulties I had when I was preparing for my hearing was that everything had an acronym: the acronym meant nothing to me but meant everything to those working within the system, and we are doing wonderful things in DG Research but we don't communicate what we're doing. You only find out about the wonderful things we're doing in neurodegenerative diseases or mother-infant transmission of HIV when you dig deep and ask individual directors within the Commission.

I don't want to say that scientists are not good communicators but it's just not their forte. They want to do the science and leave somebody else to communicate it. And when we talk about FPs, we need something that communicates to the public what all of this is about.

I'm very anxious to get young people interested in science and maths again. I want role models for young people and I also want them to see that there are lots of people around who have degrees in science, maths or engineering, but can go on to do something totally different now.

Are you going to make any extra funding available for science communication or will it just be a case of asking scientists to try harder to communicate?

I'm not talking about scientists. Within the Commission we're just not communicating all the excellent work that FP7 and its predecessors contributed to but that we just don't hear about.

I suppose the JRC's nearest equivalent in the US is the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which does a lot of work on public engagement. Should the JRC be doing more of that?

Of course. Definitely. That's how you get young people interested. It's how you communicate science to society and show what we're doing with taxpayers' money. At the end of the day we have to show what it means to them and we're not communicating that right now.

You have launched a new communication aimed at simplifying research funding procedures. As a former member of the European Court of Auditors, where is the balance between making things simple and having to provide a detailed account of how money was spent?

Well I think the Court of Auditors have always pointed out that the more complicated the rules are, the more danger there is that you're going to have difficulties with the way money is accounted for. If it's more complex there are more errors, so the simpler the rules are made, the less error you are likely to have.

And because you have the same rate of error right across the policy areas, that doesn't take into accountant that research is different. You're dealing with scientists and researchers who are only interested in doing research and science. A lot of them I've talked to in recent weeks have all said the same thing: the system is bureaucratic, it's a huge administrative burden. Researchers are telling me that they face more bureaucracy with European funds than they do in their own member states. They are asking why they can't have the same procedures as those followed by national authorities – who are also very concerned with how money is spent.

So what we've done with simplification – along with the forthcoming communication on tolerable risk of error – is ensure that we get all these scientists back into their labs and out of the offices.

You say it would make more sense to have the same systems for applying for EU funds as those in place in member states, but surely there are differences between national systems, so how do you harmonise those?

Well, our new document is meant to begin a discussion in Parliament and the Council. Member states will see very quickly that we're trying to harmonise what we're doing here and I think they will follow suit. Best practice will emerge out of that. MEPs are particularly tough on this whole issue and at every occasion that I've been in the Parliament – including as recently as last week when I spoke with the ITRE committee – virtually every MEP mentioned red tape and asked what the Commission is going to do about bureaucracy.

When the boom times were here and scientists had a choice between whether to go for national money or European money it was considered much easier to go for national money. Now that's changing, so they are looking back at Europe. It'll be a very interesting debate on simplification.

One of the suggestions you've put forward suggests that scientists would be promised money if they meet a certain goal and would be given a lump sum if those aims are met at the end. Is there a difficulty in this given that when you support scientists you don't always know what’s going to happen? Sometimes unexpectedly good things happen; other times research hits a cul de sac. Is your proposal practical given the nature of science?

That's why we've put it out as an option. We're thinking about those kinds of approaches but it's a discussion – it may not be an easy one. Sometimes there will be a defined goal which will be funded. Other times research may not work out but experts in the field could say the scientist was excellent even though it didn't work as had been hoped. But if we could do it, it would be much simplified – but it's one of the more radical options and might not happen overnight.

You have also suggested relying more on prizes. What are the advantages of that?

Well, let's say we want someone to come up with a battery for an electric car which charges quickly and lasts a long time. We could say that the company or researchers who come up with a solution get a prize. If the work doesn't cost as much as originally estimated and there is money left over, then we allow them to invest that money in further research. That's just one example.

But also, if you give a prize like that, you have a leverage effect. Maybe there'll only be one prize, but four or five companies could invest in research in this area and that might lead to other viable solutions.

Having an 'innovation indicator' to measure outcomes of investment in R&D has been part of the debate on Europe 2020. The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US is working on this already and discussed it at an event in the European Parliament. Some MEPs are suggesting transatlantic cooperation on finding scientific ways to measure science. Is that on the cards?

On the 3% R&D target, a lot of people are concerned that this only an input target, so we really need a way to measure the output. So we've been looking at how to do this. It's something the OECD has done a lot of work on, as has the World Bank and others. So we decided to find a small group of people – not representative of the different member states – but who have a track record in this area. Some come from academia, some are economists, some are business innovators. The services in the Commission – including ourselves, DG ECFIN, JRC, DG Enterprise, and so on – are coming up with the elements that might be included. But rather than just take that and decide that's what the indicator is going to be, we want this independent group to look at this and see whether it will work or not. So at the end of the day we'll have an indicator with several components that will help measure output and we feel that's the best way to go about it.

The US and Brazil done this type of thing and their indicators include patents, company formation and papers published and so on. Are those the kinds of factors that will be considered?

Yes, of course they are. And one of the things that I intend to do when I get a chance to go to the United States is talk to the people involved in this. But don't forget that within the group of experts we have looking at this, there are business innovators that will have been working with the United States and other countries on these issues, and they will be able to look, in a very critical way, at the elements of what is suggested by the services.

There has been a perception that new member states might not do as well as others. When it comes to FP8, will the money be distributed with geographical balance in mind or will it be allocated based on excellence?

The framework programme has always been about excellence. The level of investment in some member states is rather low and more needs to be done.

You have spoken about harnessing around €86 billion in structural funds for innovation projects and directing it towards developing research infrastructure. What's that money used for at the moment? If research gains, who loses?

When Danuta Hübner was commissioner for regional policy she started earmarking structural funds and Commissioner Hahn wants to bring that to another level. He wants to say to member states 'I want to see that money devoted to building up infrastructure in particular areas'. He sees that from a research point of view, because he was a research and science minister himself. He's also close to Eastern Europe and he sees where the difficulties are and has listened to the members of the Competitiveness Council from Eastern Europe saying 'we can't compete because we don't have the infrastructure'.

So Commissioner Hahn is the one who, at the end of the day, will decide how the earmarking will be done and how much should be set aside.

Commissioner Hahn is one of your allies on the innovation subgroup. Are there any tensions within that group, which is devising the Research and Innovation Plan?

No, there aren't. I was astonished to see when I arrived at the Commission that we were still working in silos, whereas in the majority of member states they don't work that way any more.

The Research and Innovation Plan began life in DG Enterprise, but you are now heavily involved. Antonio Tajani, the commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship, and yourself were at pains to stress how well you are cooperating on this. How smooth has this change in emphasis been?

President Barroso made it very clear from day one that business would not be done as usual in the new Commission. People would have to work in a very collegiate, cross-cutting way across different areas. No longer could we say 'I'm the research commissioner so I don't have to be involved with anyone else'. We're in a crisis and the Commission needs to find new ways of doing things.

The first two people who sat down after that were myself and Antonio Tajani and he said 'Look, I've been dealing with an innovation plan but only from the perspective of industry – now I can no longer just deal with it just in that way, so we're going to have to work together'.

Then suddenly other commissioners started coming in – like [Internal Market Commissioner] Michel Barnier – and saying they had an interest in important parts of this policy area, such as intellectual property. And so this commissioners group [on innovation] came together to look at this in a more holistic way.

The next thing that happened was President Barroso took this on board in the Europe 2020 and it has now been taken on by the EU leaders. [Council] President Herman Van Rompuy has taken a huge personal interest in this and it will become the centre of discussion for EU leaders in the autumn.

Even before we were formally established we were working very closely together. I set up a task force within weeks of coming in – including the JRC, DG RTD and DG Enterprise – which meets every week. We took the document from DG Enterprise and looked at what needed to be added into that document to get a holistic approach. It has been going really well.

What we're talking about in the Research and Innovation Strategy is a step change. This is going to be just fundamentally different to what we've done before.

Is the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) part of the discussion?

Well, Commissioner [Androulla] Vassiliou, who has responsibility for the EIT, is very much part of it. She's very actively involved – she also has the universities, Marie Curie and so on – and wants very much to be part of the core group of innovation commissioners.

President Barroso made it very clear to me that I have to bring in other commissioners who are not part of the core group – we can't have everybody in the subgroup or it would just become a full meeting of the college of commissioners.

What about the definition of innovation? Some have been critical of some of the language you've used, which has often focused on a research-based or market-focused approach to innovation. How holistic is your definition?

Total. Every time you talk to somebody about innovation and you have ten people in the room you get 10 definitions of what it can be. So we're talking about everything from social innovation – which is very important but people don't always think about – such as how we organise our services for elderly care, for example. It's about design, industrial innovation – the whole thing has to come together and challenge people at the end of the day.

At the last EU summit, there were five targets in the Europe 2020 plan at the beginning of the meeting. By the end, your 3% R&D spending target had survived but two others – poverty and education – were kicked into touch. Have EU leaders embraced the strategy or is it in trouble?

I think it is being embraced. Because there's a realisation that every country has its own economic difficulties and none can deal with it alone. I think the Greek situation has proven that it's the euro zone that's under attack. It's not just Greece that's under attack. We all have to work together.

The 3% target on this occasion is different to last time around [in the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs]. This time, our services are working with each different member state to define within their circumstances, based on where they are, as to what the actual target should be in their case. That's very much appreciated by the member states, because the last time it was very much a case of a having 3% target for everyone and saying 'right, you go off now and do it'. This time we're actively engaged. You'll see in the innovation plan that we'll have a diagnostic tool which helps us make a diagnosis and provide a critical path. It won't be business as before.

So, for example, will Bulgaria's target be lower than Sweden's? Will they have different targets?

They will, because you can't go to Bulgaria and insist that they follow the same targets and timeframes as the Nordic countries. I think also though, it should be said that some of the bigger countries haven't performed as well as might be expected. So we shouldn't say that it's an Eastern European issue when you look at what we might have expected from bigger countries.

What concrete measures have you got to increase the participation of SMEs in EU funds?

We're ring-fencing, for a start. This will encourage more SMEs to apply. And we're looking at what areas [in which] we're putting out calls, so that we put out calls for areas that are particularly interesting to SMEs. We're working with the EIB to find something like the Risk-Sharing Finance Facilities (RSFF), specifically targeted at SMEs. We had a very good meeting with Philippe Maystadt at the EIB [European Investment Bank] last week and they are very keen to look at instruments that might be able to help small businesses.

SMEs themselves and the business community generally have been very supportive. When I meet people, I tend to send them away with homework. They come to me and they say 'I want this, this, this and this' and I say 'okay, but can you go away, work together and come back to me with proposals'. Because we are desperately looking for people to be involved and to feel that they are involved in all of this. Everyone in my office has been meeting with groups to make sure we have as wide a consultation as possible and produce a document that has the acceptance of people.

Subscribe to our newsletters