Innovation strategy to fight Europe’s ‘brain drain’

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The Commission has come up with another proposal to foster innovation, but, as usual, the responsibility for its implementation lies with Member States.

The Communication on “Innovation: putting knowledge into practice” focuses on implementing a cultural change in Europe towards a society where innovation is encouraged both on the supply and demand side. It sets out ten high-priority actions, including: 

Establishing innovation–friendly education systems: Europe needs more and better-trained people otherwise whole economic sectors, such as ICT, will have to bring in workers from elsewhere to fulfil their needs. “That’s why we’re calling on the Member States urgently to reform their education systems in order to equip people better for the future,” said Commissioner Verheugen. Solutions could involve increasing the focus on technological and scientific issues, incapacitating basic business courses into school curricula and facilitating mobility and exchange of ideas among Member States. 

Attracting researchers through the establishment of a European Institute of Technology: Commissioner Verheugen said the creation of such a ‘centre of excellence’, capable of attracting high-calibre students and researchers is essential for bringing down Europe’s “horrifying” brain-drain figures. “We urgently need a programme for the ‘repatriation’ of European researchers and scientists to get them back here, but in order to attract them back, we need proper institutes,” he said. The aim is to establish the Institute by 2009 although not all Member States are convinced of the usefulness of the proposal and many scientists remain strongly opposed. 

Develop a strategy for innovation friendly “lead-markets”: The Commission is looking to develop “lead markets” aimed at facilitating the creation and marketing of innovative products and services. The idea is to identify promising new areas where public authorities can facilitate industry-led innovation by removing certain barriers, setting standards, improving procurement rules or providing support for research. Primary targets would be areas that respond to societal demands, such as transport, health, internal security or eco-innovation. 

Stimulate innovation through procurement: Contracting authorities can play an important role in encouraging innovation through the use of ‘smart’, innovation-oriented and performance-based public-procurement systems. 

Structural changes: Commissioner Verheugen pointed out that to translate these ideas into action, it was clear that Member States would have to undergo structural reforms that could be painful. Pension, health and also business systems will have to become “more innovative and more sustainable”, he said. 

Gunter Verheugen, Commission Vice-President in charge of Enterprise and Industry, said: “We’re not saying that with just a bundle of laws we can solve this problem, not at all. We want to have a real innovation culture in Europe. We want it to be recognised everywhere, in all economies, that innovation is going to be decisive for the future. The new Communication describes what is necessary to bring about this cultural change in Europe.” 

Regarding research investment in Member States, he said: “The political elite must at last stop giving the impression that we can leave everything as it is.” Mentioning his attendance at the EU-China Business Summit on 12 September 2006, he said: “It is quite clear: the competition which we’ll be faced with over the coming five to ten years in sectoral areas where we thought we had a strong position… it’s almost breathtaking and that’s why we really need to make haste in moving forward.” 

Arnaldo Abruzzini, Secretary General of EUROCHAMBRES, agrees that simply investing in research will not automatically lead to innovation: “We must always pay as much or more attention to the use that can be made of research results. In this respect, the demand for innovative products and services should be further encouraged. The US has well understood the importance of boosting demand for innovation with public procurement policies. This allowed them to have a very productive innovation industry. Europe must also shift its perspective from the supply to the demand side of the innovation process.” 

EUROCHAMBRES also stressed the need to tackle the issue of the Community patent, saying: “Europe needs a cost effective framework to protect and exploit ideas. The German Presidency should play a key leadership role in this regard.” 

Regarding the Commission recommendation to facilitate ‘lead markets’, Gerhard Huemer, UEAPME Director for Economic and Fiscal Policy, stressed the fact that “all EU enterprises, not just a few ‘national champions’, must be able to access the innovation market and take advantage of it”. UEAPME believes that: “While incentives for 'early movers' may be an effective feature in this respect … such markets should not become closed circles for one or a few winners, but should rather pave the way for a gradual improvement of the whole market sector involved. Obstacles to market access and opportunities for SMEs should be thoroughly assessed during the suggested pilot project on “lead markets” in 2007."

UEAPME also insisted on the importance of a new framework for state aid for research, development and innovation to properly address market failures in access to technologies and innovative services. 

The Commission has adopted a ten-point programme to foster innovation, in response to a call from Member States’ leaders during the Spring European Council of March 2006. 

The plan is defined as a “broad-based innovation strategy for Europe that translates investments in knowledge into products and services”.

It is by no means the first plan adopted to stimulate innovation. Indeed, by the end of the 1990s, Europe began to realise that it would be unable to compete in the new globalised economic order without modernising its economy, becoming more inventive, reacting better to consumer needs and preferences and innovating more. 

In 2000, the Commission adopted the Lisbon agenda - which was revised and relaunched as the Partnership for Growth and Jobs in 2005 - aimed at making Europe more competitive by making the regulatory and economic framework more innovation friendly and by increasing investment in training, research and development. 

In October 2005, the Commission also presented a Communication entitled “More Research and Innovation”, comprising 19 actions aimed at putting research and innovation at the centre of EU policies and funding, as well as at the heart of business. 

However, the Commission believes that more action is needed for Europe to become a truly innovation-friendly society. 

  • 25 September 2006: The Competitiveness Council will debate the Communication 
  • 20 October 2006: European leaders will discuss the proposal at the informal European Summit in Lahti, Finland 

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