Laser lobby bids for billions in EU research cash

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A consortium of industry groups working on laser systems has proposed one of the largest ever public-private partnerships (PPPs) in European research, putting €5.6 billion on the table in return for a €1.4 billion injection of EU R&D cash.

The bid is the first sign of jostling private sector claims on the expanded EU research budget for the 2014-2020 funding period (see 'Background').

It comes ahead of European Commission proposals due in October to finance the EU's upcoming research programme, dubbed 'Horizon 2020'.

Photonics21, a consortium of more than 2,000 laboratories, companies and research institutions, has lodged a bid for a PPP, claiming it would contribute €5.6 billion to a plan that would also gobble €1.4 billion of the EU research budget's expanded pie.

The consortium includes many SMEs, but multinationals such as BAE Systems, Philips, Siemens and Sony are also represented.

Representing a variety of industrial sectors dealing with light technology, the photonics industry covers a wide range of industrial applications. Key areas highlighted by the consortium in respect of the bid include the development of:

  • Ultra-high speed fibre-optic communication networks for telecommunications and IT;
  • high-speed laser-based manufacturing processes;
  • lasers for efficient medical diagnosis and treatment; and
  • light-emitting diodes to reduce the consumption of power used for lighting.

Photonics claim future EU jobs boon

The European photonics sector claims to represent more than a fifth of the entire global market in the sector, employing 290,000 with an annual turnover of almost €58.5 billion.

The consortium went public with its bid at a launch event in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (14 September). It claims that the PPP would turn Europe into the dominant market for the technology, generating a turnover of €3.6 trillion and up to 30 million jobs.

That would make photonics accountable for a tenth of EU GDP and one in six of all jobs.

The group would not give full details of how it accounted for the proposed private sector tranche of €5.6 billion, but it pointed to strong endorsement for the bid from Neelie Kroes, the commissioner for the digital agenda.

In a speech to the consortium earlier this year Kroes invited the European photonics industry to consider engaging in such a public-private partnership with the European Commission.

Kroes: 'You can count on me'

She said: "Don't hesitate to put something concrete on the table – but be aware that this can only work on the basis of a strong commitment by all partners. You can count on me to do my bit and to make sure photonics gets the support it needs."

The final decision on how Horizon 2020 will be divided up will rest mainly with Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, though she has indicated that she will work closely with other departments on the issue.

Commission officials said it was too early to comment on whether the bid was likely to be successful, but they suggested that the EU executive had at least welcomed the proposal.

In July MEPs warned that deciding how to carve up the newly boosted research budget – expected to reach at least €80 billion for the period 2014-2020 – is likely to cause internal power struggles at the European Commission.

Jeremy Fleming

"Given the magnitude of the gains such an alignment may realise, this proposal represents a significant contribution by the photonics industry towards the improved growth and competitiveness of the EU.  Photonic innovation in Europe tends to fall through in the stage between successful science and pilot scale industrial deployments, the latter being the stage at which jobs can start being created," said Giorgio Anania, Photonics21 vice-president.

The EU's new research programme for 2014-2020 – dubbed 'Horizon 2020' –, will absorb existing research funding such as the European Institute of Technology (EIT) and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP).

The EIT is currently administered by the Commission's education department, whilst the CIPs are administered by its enterprise and energy directorates. Some or all of these departments' controls could disappear depending on how the funds are positioned within Horizon 2020, the full details of which will be revealed in October.

The draft EU budget for 2014-2020 does not specify a separate line of funding for the programmes, leading to uncertainty over how much they will receive and how they will be administered internally within the Commission.

This could lead to internal power struggles at the Commission, MEPs have warned.

  • End 2011: Horizon 2020 costing proposal to be published by Commission.

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