Director responsible for “Transport” in the Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, European Commission
Clara de la Torre has a degree in Economics and Business Administration from the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid. After a couple of years in the private sector, her professional career has mainly focused on research and innovation policy where she started her activities at the European Commission in 1987.
Since 1 February 2016 Clara de la Torre is Director responsible for “Transport” in the Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, European Commission. She was previously the Director responsible for “Key Enabling Technologies” and “Research and Innovation” in the Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, and “Inter-institutional and legal matters related to the Framework Programme” in the former Directorate General RTD at the European Commission.
In the late 90’s, she dealt with “National Research Policies & Intergovernmental Cooperation” and she also worked at the EU Joint Research Centre both in Brussels and Seville, where she was advisor to the Director of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies.
- You joined the Commission in 1987 shortly after Spain’s accession to the then European Economic Community and have served in the European Commission in decision-making positions in research and innovation. Initially working in the private sector, what prompted you to choose the European Civil Service?
Both my father and mother had in their personal and professional lives many contacts abroad, they spoke several languages and they liked to discover different cultures. The idea of Europe, Europeans, traveling and speaking other languages and meeting people of other nationalities has been part of my life since I was a child! And my first school was the European Lyceum in Madrid…
When Spain entered the European Community, it was precisely the moment when I started my professional career and when the European Commission launched open competitions. I was fortunate enough to start working right after my graduate studies in an interesting mission in a global and European company, but the “European bug” took me to apply to the competitions and … I passed them. Without hesitation, I quit my job (two years had passed!) and I came to Brussels. And this until today, without ever having regretted it!
The European construction, as a symbol of peace and of social and economic progress, guided and inspired me throughout all these years in the exercise of my career in the Commission. The duty of public service also gives a great sense to what I do and is particularly present in the difficult moments, which certainly exist also!
the “European bug” took me to apply to the competitions and … I passed them. Without hesitation, I quit my job (two years had passed!) and I came to Brussels. And this until today, without ever having regretted it!
2. The prehistory of Community Research dates back to the late 1940s where the political and scientific attention was concentrated on two sources of energy: coal, the primary one, and nuclear energy which was viewed as the promising alternative. Could you tell us about how EU research policies have evolved over the time to address the new realities of the XXI century society?
Coal and steel were the seeds of European construction as we all know. Research in this field, as well as in the nuclear field, by virtue of the Euratom Treaty, were indeed the first steps of research at European level. The Treaty establishing the European Economic Community had not provided any specific article for research, but an intelligent reading of some general articles led to the creation of several research programs in a number of fields during the 1960s and 1970s, such as energy, environment or biotechnology. It was with the European Single Act in 1987 (the year I joined the Commission!), that the treaty was endowed with a chapter devoted to research, and in particular, enshrined the concept of a framework program that had already been introduced in the early 1980s.
The evolution of the different Programs is due to a high growth in the budget, going from hundreds of millions to billions of euros, but also to a significant change in the content. For many years, the program focused its resources on thematic areas directly or indirectly linked to other policies. These areas remain very important. Over time, other aspects have also been developed in the service of science and innovation policies, with open programs / or programs aimed at specific communities such as SMEs or researchers.
The instruments have been adapted to this evolution and to respond to the specific needs of the different actors and the achievement of the different objectives. Research grants, grants, awards, coordination measures, financial instruments, public-private partnerships or public-public partnerships are part of the Framework Program’s instruments which allowed us to gain experience and we are trying to improve them over time
Another important achievement is the addition of so-called mono-beneficiary instruments, such as the European Research Council grants or the SME instrument, to the traditional consortia or networks, where partners from several Member States are needed.
International cooperation has also clearly evolved and, as our Commissioner says, we want our program to be the most open in the world.
3. The EU Staff Policy is meritocratic and the positions are achieved using a thorough selection procedure based on merit and in open competition. In 2010, the Commission adopted an equal opportunities strategy for 2010-2014 which ended in the radical modernisation of the Staff Regulations of Officials and the Conditions of Employment of Other Servants of the European Community. In your view, and as a woman that has broken the so-called glass ceiling’ to progress to senior position, would you say that the adoption of measures which provide for specific advantages in favour of the underrepresented gender has contributed to increase the number of women in EU medium and high-level political positions?
Without any doubt!! Thank goodness measures have been taken! When I joined the Commission nearly thirty years ago, the proportion of women in decision-making positions was practically zero, and the proportion of women in the so-called category A (of university graduates) was very low. We all know that this does not represent, either now or then, the reality of the population. Equality is a principle of our societies and there is no reason why this principle should not be scrupulously respected in public or private, national or international organizations.
In addition, from an economic point of view, we women are also a resource that has been formed with public funds in an immense proportion. Not using that investment is simply a waste of resources and of talent!
Another very important aspect is diversity. We all know that one of the strengths of Europe to be preserved is its diversity. Diversity is wealth, it is incentive, it is openness, and it is an incredible factor of creativity and progress. An organization that does not count on women is an organization unable to manage its resources or its talent, let alone to exploit diversity.
Fortunately, society is changing, although very slowly. Measures have been taken to accelerate this process, which has only positive consequences as many studies have shown, and they are producing the intended effect. Nevertheless, without a change in education in families and schools as well as in the attitude of men and women, we will not be able to make much progress.
In my professional field, I have the opportunity to meet many young women and I am always delighted to encourage valuable women to fight for what they want and for what they deserve!
Equality is a principle of our societies and there is no reason why this principle should not be scrupulously respected in public or private, national or international organizations.
4. Innovation is an essential component to be integrated into the EU research policies and, in particular, into Horizon 2020, ESIF and EFSI. Although these actions have included positive steps however, the support mechanisms can be difficult to navigate and there is a lack of the flexibility and responsiveness that disruptive innovation requires. Would you think that a potential European Innovation Council could contribute to solve this problema?
I have no doubt because the ambition to provide Europe, its innovators and their companies with a mechanism to accelerate the much-needed process of technological and non-technological innovation, is precisely what led our Commissioner Carlos Moedas to propose the idea.
I think we all agree that the European Research Council, the ERC, in which CSIC participates so successfully, is a great European creation, a great success we should all be proud of, and we have the duty to preserve!
We must build the European Innovation Council with the same determination and endeavor. Europe, again, cannot afford to invest in R&D if it is not to be transferred, with obvious limitations, to the productive fabric and society in new services, processes and products. We need to find mechanisms to enable new market-creating innovations to come out as fast as competition demands today.
We need to identify these innovations quickly, and offer them appropriate support mechanisms, whether financial, regulatory, informative, etc… So many brilliant ideas born in Europe, and whose authors would like them to be exploited in Europe, cannot and should not end up in the hands of our competitors.
The goal is clear. The European Innovation Council setting up details are being discussed within the Commission. Stakeholders are being consulted and Commissioner Moedas relies on the valuable support of a group of innovators operating with different professional profiles.
The European Innovation Council setting up details are being discussed within the Commission. Stakeholders are being consulted and Commissioner Moedas relies on the valuable support of a group of innovators operating with different professional profiles.
5. Horizon 2020 will expire on 31 December 2020 and a new Framework Programme is due to start on 1 January 2021. To contribute to public debate, the CSIC has drafted its H2020 mid-term review position paper. In this document, in addition to focusing on certain necessary corrections to be undertaken for H2020 2018-2020 period, there are a few ideas applicable to the future Framework Programme: Science as Innovation backbone, ring-fenced budgets for Research and Innovation, or the crucial role to be played by Member States in building institutional capacities in its fields of competence. You have headed and currently head critical DG R&I areas with regard to the final political decisions, could you give us your view concerning said issues and, if this is possible at this stage, highlight a few of the ideas on which the Commission is already working for its 9th FP draft proposal?
I contributed indeed to the preparation of some Framework Programs from different angles. It is a complex but fascinating adventure!
Nobody will tell us not to invest in R&D, but when it comes to budgeting, particularly at the current time, the fight is hard. How to turn words into actions? Impact of EU investment in its Framework Programs has to be shown in terms of knowledge progress, improvements of the well-being of citizens, productivity growth of our economic systems, opening of new markets, qualification of the labor force, etc. Citizens as well as national and European policy makers need to be informed. I believe that both European and national institutions just as scientists have much to do and to learn from other sectors and other policies.
The Framework Program has been evaluated by another group, chaired by the former Commissioner and former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, and of which the former Spanish Minister Cristina Garmendia is a member. Apart from evaluating what has been done, the group has issued 11 recommendations about the future ninth Framework Program, leading the way with its quality and authority.
We also have, and have always had, a strong ally in the European Parliament. In its draft report on the evaluation of the Framework Program, € 100 billion is proposed for the period 2021-2027 and some deputies particularly active in research questions claim € 120 billion.
I am sure that the governments of the EU Member States, represented in the Council of Ministers, will make the necessary to turn into European budget the constant calls for investment in science and innovation. But also at national and regional level, investments in R&D are essential, as well as the establishment of effective systems of science and innovation in each of the Member States. Therefore, we must count on the required incentives, regulation, training and working conditions for researchers to face the challenge. For those of us who believe in European construction, there is no better way than working together towards a common goal!
CSIC is a major player in European science. It contributes in a constructive and innovative way to the debates that shape the future of European science. It is well known that we can always count on it and its researchers.
6. Spain (and among research public bodies notably the CSIC) maintains consistent and incremental performance in achieving tangible and intangible resources from EU R&I Framework Programmes, what is your opinion in this respect and, finally, what other advices and suggestions could you give us to boost our results in the future?
As a European civil servant and as a Spanish citizen, I am very happy and proud to see the impressive change regarding the Spanish participation in European programs. I am well aware that this did not happen by chance: the political and institutional work as well as the endeavor of each member of the scientific community is impressive. Although there is obviously much to be done, we have to be optimistic and very careful for the future.
I would not allow myself to give advice to the eminent readers of this publication or its publisher but I refer to the facts: when there is determination, there are results. When you have a good idea, you have to start developing it quickly and find the right partners in Europe to carry it out; when you see that others have good ideas, you have to be there to contribute to their development; when there are discussions, whether institutional, formal or informal, whether with experts or with generalists, you have to be there, prepared with a clear line and purpose. It is not a secret: it is what I see in successful stories.