Interview with the President of the CSIC, Professor Emilio Lora-Tamayo
The CSIC Office in Brussels has launched a cycle of interviews with different personalities of the world of research and innovation, from both European and Spanish institutions. This initiative is especially focused on the new Framework Programme R&I, Horizon 2020 (H2020), which will be a funding source for research and innovation of significant importance for the next seven years. We are sure that the CSIC will play in it a role as active as in previous Framework Programmes.
We want to open this space of interviews in our website by talking about H2020 with our President, Prof. Lora-Tamayo, who, on behalf of our institution, has participated in the debates, negotiations, pacts and even the small and big battles to achieve the best participation conditions possible, in a forum in which 28 member countries and a huge number of potential participants try to achieve these excellent conditions.
Jorge Velasco, Deputy in Brussels, sets the subject and interviews Prof. Lora-Tamayo:
On December 11th 2013, the first calls of the new Framework Programme of the EU, H2020 (2014-2020), were published. H2020 has a budget of some 70 billion euros, which makes it the largest programme of the world in public funding for research and innovation.
For the first time in the history of Framework Programmes, the calls will be biannual with the aim of making it easier for researchers and companies to plan their activities. The budget for the first two years is over 15 billion euros: around 7.8 billion euros in 2014, and the rest in 2015.
Pillars of H2020
The 2014 calls are focused on the so-called Pillars of H2020:
JV: The adoption of H2020 has been a really difficult task, even more than previous Framework Programmes. What is your general opinion about the whole process? Are you reasonable satisfied?
EL-T: H2020 combines research and innovation and it is the financial instrument that, in the next seven years, will contribute to the attainment of innovation by the Union, which is one of the emblematic initiatives of the Europe 2020 Strategy.
Combining research and innovation in a single Framework Programme poses a radical change in philosophy with respect to the previous ones. Nobody doubts that investment in research will have positive results for this and future generations, but it´s also true that the economic crisis we have been suffering forces Europe to improve its competitiveness, increase the economic growth and create qualified jobs. This can only be done if innovation is incorporated into the traditional life cycle of scientific research and technological development.
This approach has clearly made the negotiation of H2020 much more complicated, given the numerous legitimate interests at stake. On the one hand, universities and research centres must maintain and increase the traditional level of excellence of European research; on the other hand, the European industry faces extreme challenges to keep its competitiveness with respect to emerging markets. Lastly, society demands urgent problems to be solved, such as climate change, the management of raw materials and energy resources, the improvement of health and the quality of life, or food safety.
With regard to the final result, yes, I believe we can be reasonably satisfied. Both European institutions and interest groups –in the community jargon, the so-called “stakeholders”– have aimed to achieve a balance so that particular interests do not prevent the convergence into a common goal, which is no other than reinforcing the world´s position of excellent European science, consolidating the suitability and training of our industry and eliminating all kind of barriers that prevent knowledge from becoming innovative products and services that improve society´s quality of life.
Combining research and innovation in a single Framework Programme poses a radical change in philosophy with respect to the previous ones.
Combining research and innovation in a single Framework Programme poses a radical change in philosophy with respect to the previous ones.
Whether or not we achieved so will not be seen in the next few years. However, it is undeniable that the European institutions, both public and private, have a large number of opportunities in H2020 that must not be wasted because, among other reasons, Spain´s contribution to the general budget of the Union represents a considerable percentage of European R&I funding.
JV: What essential aspects of H2020 would you highlight?
EL-T: Definitely, the large number of interactions that it offers to potential participants. H2020 is a complex programme and it takes time to completely understand the principles that inspire it. Also, it doesn´t have an easy reading. Thereby, sometimes we see discouragement, especially in the world of research as the traditional scientific interests are not clearly reflected.
However, the interdisciplinary and transversal aspects are very important. Let´s take health research as an example. The knowledge acquired by basic research barely had any impact on clinical research. Thereby, it is important to increase the interaction between those who work in basic sciences and those who have to carry out therapeutic interventions for the benefit of patients; in other words, “from bench-to-bedside”.
Another very important example for the CSIC, given its critical mass in this field, is the role in this programme assigned to Social and Human Sciences, which will be an integral part of the activities to face the Societal Challenges, besides receiving specific support in Challenge 6 «Inclusive, innovative and safe societies». That is, the projects will have to consider the socio-economic impact of the objectives proposed which, in turn, will make it necessary to incorporate specialists in this subject, thus opening a spectrum of new ways to participate in the projects of H2020.
…the interdisciplinary and transversal aspects are very important.
The ICT (…) are represented in six of the seven Societal Challenges…
There is also an interrelationship between the activities of different pillars of H2020 that offer new perspectives in different, but clearly interconnected, scientific fields. A good model would be that of ICTs, which, despite of being framed within the Pillar of Industrial Leadership, are represented in six of the seven Societal Challenges through specific topics or calls, or as part of a larger set of support technologies.
On the other hand, we still have a Pillar, that of Excellent Science, in which the different ways to generate fundamental science are widely represented. Our results in the ERC and the Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions allow us to be optimistic about obtaining positive results.
JV: The Commission has talk a lot about the simplification that H2020 will offer compared to previous programmes. Do you think it is really possible to simplify such complex matters like participating in international committees which, in addition to the European rules, they must also abide by the national rules?
EL-T: We must not deny that the intentions are good. Regarding the results, there is actually a lot of uncertainty. Most of the measures of simplification adopted are administrative and financial, and it will take a long time to confirm whether they have really simplified or, on the contrary, complicated the internal procedures of the usual participants. We must not forget that the new measures of simplification must coexist for a very long time with the participation rules established in previous Framework Programmes.
Just to mention one example, the last calls of the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) were resolved two months ago and the length of the projects funded can be extended up to five years. For an organisation like the CSIC, which is the seventh participant of the EU in number of projects funded in this programme, this poses a double effort since it will have to keep the administrative management and the current system of expenses for the on-going projects of FP7 while establishing new administrative and accounting tools to manage the projects of H2020.
Undoubtedly and in the long term, anything that allows management optimisation will pose a benefit for the institution; however, this would involve an increase in the human resources and materials made available for H2020.
Most of the measures of simplification adopted are administrative and financial, and it will take a long time to confirm whether they have really simplified…
JV: With respect to funding, one of the most evident changes is the removal of the so-called “real indirect cost reimbursement model” which has been replaced by a single possibility: reimbursement of 100% of the total direct costs plus 25% of these costs as indirect costs in non-profit research and innovation actions for the entities. The CSIC has participated under the model of real direct and indirect costs for almost 25 years. Do you think that this model will be detrimental to the CSIC or will we be able to adapt to it without losing our capacity to generate income?
EL-T: The adaptability of the CSIC to the Framework Programmes, as that of the academic world in general, is legendary. Not in vain, we have participated in six of them (since the second one, in 1986, as consequence of the entry of Spain in what was back then known as the European Economic Community) and H2020 will be the seventh one, thus the knowledge we have acquired in matters of adaptation to the environment is huge.
It is true that we have participated since 1988 in the real indirect costs model, which until a few years ago was offered from the EU as the most suitable method, accountancy wise, to know the real cost of research. But I´m not pessimistic about finances. As I pointed out earlier, it is undeniable that this is already posing a considerable effort since we must reconvert the costs of carrying out the projects formerly integrated in the indirect costs –and, therefore, not attributed as direct costs– to direct costs that meet all the conditions established in the Financial Regulation of the EU. We are working on it; I´m sure that this is feasible and we will do it on time, to prevent the CSIC from being affected by the new model.
JV: A very important goal of H2020 is to facilitate open access to scientific and technical publications derived from the results of actions funded by this FP. How do you find this initiative? Do you think it will be possible to achieve so and prevent, at the same time, conflicts with the most important scientific editors or that these raise the publication price considerably due to the policy of open access to scientific information and research data?
EL-T: First of all, I want to clarify a very simple thing which we, however, believe that has not been explained properly by the services of the Commission. The Participation Rules of H2020 do not establish the obligation to publish the results of the research funded by the Framework Programme. What it does establish as compulsory, and this is a very important aspect with respect to the participation of companies and industries obviously concerned about their business interests, is that, when the research results and data are spread through scientific publications, an open access system must be applied.
The purpose of this system is that every beneficiary of a H2020 grant must guarantee the open, free and on-line access of every peer-reviewed scientific publication to any type of user. In return, the costs incurred in this category during the execution of the project will be eligible and, therefore, they will be considered as an additional direct cost of the project.
In essence, this obligation is only the transposition of the Declaration of Berlin on Open access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities signed on October 22nd 2003, which the CSIC adhered to on January 31st 2006.
For us, the benefits of Open Access are undeniable, especially now that the advancements in ICTs have accelerated the transition to an electronic system that has allowed us to establish scientific repositories that guarantee the quality of publications and maximises the impact of research results. And this is unstoppable: the European Commission published a study in 2011 in which they indicated that over 40% of the scientific articles revised by peers and published between 2004 and 2011 were already available in open access via Internet.
…when the research results and data are spread through scientific publications, an open access system must be applied…
The problem lies in how to make the interests of the academic world compatible with those of the companies that publish scientific papers, and the positions of both sectors have not reached an agreement yet. We have already mentioned the advantages that, in our opinion, this system has, not only for the academic world, but ultimately for Humanity. Regarding the editors, they state that the pay-for-access model is necessary because it restates their role as “guarantors” of academic reputation since they organise the peer-reviews, and publish and index the scientific articles, not to mention the economic resources they offer to the users to carry out those processes.
The problem lies in how to make the interests of the academic world compatible with those of the companies that publish scientific papers.
Up to the present day, the big publishing companies use for the “Gold” system a price that must be paid by either the authors, their institutions or their funding agency, which ranges between 500 and 5,000 dollars depending on the journal in which the paper is published. For the “Green” system (the institutional repositories that have been mentioned already) almost every publishing company establishes a minimum embargo period of six months, which can be extended to 18-24 months.
It would be ideal to achieve a system of scientific publications in which open access was guaranteed and free of financial barriers. For this end, the publishing companies would have to replace their current business model, based on subscription or access prices, with a model that allowed reorganising the current resources without depending exclusively on the researcher´s own funds or the national funds available.
Also, the financial cost is very important. If we analyse this aspect considering the funding that H2020 could provide for the “Gold” type, we immediately realise that a lot of money, originally designated for research and innovation, is going to be invested to support a business model that needs to evolve in accordance with the current times. I am sure that in this matter we have reached a point of no return and that we are in the good path to reach a reasonable agreement all together.
JV: The economic crisis has forced a reduction in the budget for R&I in many European countries. H2020 opens new opportunities to alleviate the current situation. What challenges does the CSIC face at the beginning of H2020? What would you say to the CSIC researchers?
EL-T: The change of principles and philosophy of H2020 with respect to FP7 is not detrimental on its own. It would only have a negative effect if we are not capable of modifying our traditional model of elaborating proposals. We have always advised our researchers to respect every indication in the calls of the Framework Programmes, however insignificant they seemed, related to non-scientific or non-technical aspects. In case of a draw in the final score obtained by different projects selected, success or failure may lie in this very detail which didn´t seem relevant at first.
In H2020 it is decisive: whether the call of a societal challenge indicates that a specific research and innovation action must be directed at solving demands of the pertinent market or industry. We must take this requirement into account and, if our position in the committee allows so, include the pertinent activities and partners in the work programme. Likewise, we could also apply this to gender aspects, the need to have technological SMEs that are really affected by the problem whose potential solution is proposed in the project, etc.
Each individual must think about the most suitable role for them and whether they are willing to lead the project. If the connection is not perfect, one can participate in other projects that may need our skills and experience (this would clearly be the socio-economic aspects mentioned earlier). And, if the research line doesn´t appear at all, one can participate in coordination actions that foster its inclusion in future calls.
This is the change of mentality I referred to. We must realise that the world has changed and that of R&I as well. However, we are fortunate to have centres of basic, transversal, interdisciplinary and applied research, which are centres of evident technological orientation, appropriate infrastructures and, above all, we have a critical mass that is more motivated than ever, now that the national funds have decreased, to participate actively in the new challenge we have ahead, H2020.
We are sure that, in seven years from now, when we talk about the next Framework Programme, we will have broadly fulfilled our objectives as we did with those of FP7, which seemed very difficult at that moment, given the good results achieved in the previous Framework Programme.
The change of principles and philosophy of H2020 with respect to FP7 is not detrimental on its own. It would only have a negative effect if we are not capable of modifying our traditional model of elaborating proposals.
JV: One more question to conclude. You have recently been appointed Vice-president of Science Europe, an organisation integrated by 52 European entities, both funding and conducting research, to which the CSIC belongs since its creation. For our institution, what is the added value of participating in this type of entities?
EL-T: The goal of Science Europe is double. On the one hand, it wants to contribute to the design of the coordination of the national policies that will govern the European Research Area (ERA). On the other hand, Science Europe wants to become a privileged representative of the institutions of the European Union: Commission, Council and Parliament.
With these objectives in mind, it is important for the CSIC to be part of an international organisation that gathers the main research centres of Europe (CNRS, MPG, CNR,…) with the most important research funding agencies (DFG, ANR, SNSF…), and whose motto is the survival and reinforcement of excellent science in Europe. By working together on common interests, we will have many more chances of success. As Vice-president of such institution, I will use my best knowledge and experience to fulfil these aspirations.