Interview with MEP Teresa Riera, H2020 speaker
Teresa Riera Madurell was a MEP from 2004 to 2014 and a member of the Parliamentary Committee of Industry, Research and Energy. She was a speaker for the Research and Innovation Framework Programme “Horizon 2020”. She is a Professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of the Balearic Islands.
JV: Designing the European Research and Innovation Framework Programmes is a complex and dynamic task that requires all the involved parts to reach a common perception about its ultimate purpose, especially regarding social welfare and the improvement of European competitiveness. Some misunderstanding occurs frequently in the academic world, the companies and even the citizens, regarding commitment and the role of the European Parliament during the long period of time dedicated to its negotiation and adoption. You had an important role in this process representing the Committee of Industry, Research and Energy as a speaker for the Framework Programme “Horizon 2020”. Could you explain to us the role of the European Parliament and what was its contribution to the final text of H2020?
Horizon 2020 is the result of two years of intensive legislative work between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission. Together, we have reached a final agreement in H2020 that will reinforce and organise the European system of research and innovation.
During these negotiations, the main goal of the Parliament was the implementation of an efficient and ambitious instrument that aims to economic growth and job creation in the EU. The ultimate purpose is to make Europe competitive in a global world and to ensure the prosperity of our citizens. We can assert that Horizon 2020 provides the basis to achieve a dynamic and competitive economy based on knowledge. We need to be sure that all this potential turns into results through the execution of the programme in the next seven years.
There are many aspects of Horizon 2020 in which the European Parliament has left its impression. Most of these will be mentioned in this interview and we will have the opportunity to specify them. However, I would like to highlight that, from the Parliament, the support on the excellence of our scientific studies has always been a clear priority during the negotiation of H2020. Europe cannot tolerate any longer a brain drain motivated by the lack of opportunities for its researchers. H2020 contains diverse measures directed to reinforce the capacity of Europe to attract, retain and promote the best minds. The European Research Council (ERC) has a budget of 13 billion euros to support state-of-the-art research and the excellent researchers that work in high-risk projects and great innovation potential. Furthermore, young researchers have always been the focus of the European Parliament. As a consequence, the budget for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions has been increased to 6.1 billion euros. We cannot forget that young researchers are the main victims of budget reductions in the system of aid for research in some of the member countries of the EU. Thereby, from my point of view, including the support for scientists and researchers in the core of Horizon 2020 is the main achievement of the new framework programme.
Europe cannot tolerate any longer a brain drain motivated by the lack of opportunities for its researchers.
JV: The new Framework Programme begins in a crucial moment for Europe, harshly hit by the world´s economic and financial crisis that has questioned the capacity of the EU to act under such hard circumstances as low growth, scarce innovation and all the environmental and societal challenges. Do you think that the approach adopted in H2020 is an opportunity to reinforce excellent science and highly qualified scientists, and to include innovation in the whole life cycle of traditional research and demonstration?
TR: Absolutely. H2020 is a step forward in the support for research and innovation in Europe. We have learned a lot from the previous framework programmes, especially from the seventh one. I would like to point out that H2020 represents the change towards the future. As it links research and innovation for the first time in a framework programme, H2020 ensures that Europe supports the entire chain, from fundamental research to the market, in a consistent manner and under a single programme.
This change in approach aims to correct important deficiencies of the European system of research and innovation. However, we cannot forget that reinforcing excellent science and brilliant scientists must continue to be our main priority. The advances in science and innovation constitute the basis for the innovation system.
Thereby, Scientific Excellence is the first priority of H2020 and the Parliament has worked to impose this priority in each of the specific objectives, especially in the European Research Council, the Future and Emerging Technologies, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and the Research Infrastructures.
To sum up, integrating innovation represents a revolutionary advancement. However, the benefits of this change in orientation will only take place if we keep supporting the traditional research and demonstration activities.
JV: With respect to the budget of H2020, we know that the ITRE Committee has only fought against the important reduction from the 80 billion euros proposed by the Commission to the 70.2 billion eventually approved, which is way below the 100 billion proposed by the Parliament. Do you think that this amount will allow to achieve such ambitious objectives as those included in H2020 or, on the contrary, will it be a condition that will make it necessary to obtain the financial contribution of other financial sources, such as Structural Funds, or even the increase in the research and innovation budgets of the member countries to co-fund a significant part of the activities of H2020?
TR: It is true that my report as a speaker for H2020 requested that the new programme had a budget of 100 billion euros. It was a reasonable request, considering the evaluations of the 7th Framework Programme and also the commitment of the European Council in favour of research and innovation. This commitment was continuously reiterated by the European leaders and it was even shown in the conclusions of the European Council itself.
However, when this commitment was moved to the discussions on the Multiannual Financial Framework, the majority of the European Council, obsessed with austerity, imposed this reduction in the budget of H2020.
Aware of the reasons, but not happy with such reduction imposed by the European Council, the Parliament negotiated with the intention of obtaining additional investment in research and innovation, and also to increase the impact of H2020 in this period of compulsory budget limitations. For this reason, most of the novelties of H2020 respond to the need for obtaining more public investment, luring additional resources and allowing synergies with other European policies and programmes.
In this sense, increasing the impact of H2020 is the main purpose of the new priority “To spread excellence and expand participation”. In a similar manner, another new priority, “Science with and for the Society”, added by the Parliament, is directed to the creation of an efficient cooperation between science and society, which will contribute to achieve a more responsible science, but also to expand social support to science and, why not, to increase the public demand for greater investment in science.
On the other hand, the fact that it will be compulsory for scientific publications derived from the results of research funded by H2020 to apply the Open Access system will increase the impact of public investment, making it easier to access these results, which will avoid unnecessary duplications and accelerate the scientific progress.
The search for a greater impact also forces to improve the contribution of the private sector. For instance, H2020 includes the continuation of the public-private cooperation as a very meaningful instrument for this end. However, the existing public-private partnerships, and also the new ones, will be subject to the general rules of H2020. The repeals cannot be greater than the general rule. Therefore, new requirements have been established in relation to transparency, openness, added value and the contribution of private resources when public resources have been reduced.
In fact, most of the novelties of H2020 respond to the need for obtaining more public investment, luring additional resources and allowing synergies with other European policies and programmes.
In fact, most of the novelties of H2020 respond to the need for obtaining more public investment, luring additional resources and allowing synergies with other European policies and programmes.
Moreover, part of the budget of H2020 will not be applied as grants, but through mechanisms of risk sharing (for loans and warrants), and through investments in venture capital. The aim is to stimulate a greater investment in research and innovation, especially by the private sector, and multiply the resources. Furthermore, these new instruments will open an efficient and economic way that completes the finance through grants of H2020 and transfers the results of R&D to the market.
The reference to the new Structural and Investment Funds in your question is also very relevant. These Funds are at the service of the national and regional authorities who are willing to invest in research and innovation, and there are synergies with H2020. However, the additional national and regional resources must be used to meet the required 3% of intensity in the R&D expenses established in the Europe 2020 Strategy. Some governments have invested in research and innovation during the economic crisis and now they are in a better position, and with a clear competitive advantage.
H2020 will surely alleviate the lack of resource that researches and companies in Europe complain about, but it cannot be the only means to solve the budget reductions that Europe is facing regarding research and innovation. Only a shared commitment to invest in this domain can guarantee the progress towards an economy truly based on knowledge.
JV: The last version of the European Innovation Scoreboard (February 2014) still shows the inner differences of the EU in terms of investment in research and innovation. H2020 introduces specific measures to spread excellence and expand participation, and the European Parliament was decisive in the attainment of these new initiatives. Could you indicate in more detail your opinion on this matter?
The new priority, “spread excellence and expand participation” was proposed by the Parliament without geographical connotations. Obviously, the geographical criteria entered the debate, but the Parliament insisted on the support for excellence wherever it is. There is a lot of excellent science and innovation in Europe that doesn´t get European support. An ambitious Europe in the field of research and innovation cannot ignore this excellence; on the contrary, it must support it.
With this said, it is true that the differences in the support for research and innovation activities is bad news for Europe. An effective European Research Space needs more homogenous reinforcements from all the affected parts. Unfortunately, the distance between the leaders in innovation and those that follow in the ranking has increased due to the misleading political decisions adopted within the framework of an imposed austerity. Such unwise austerity, present in some countries and regions, is even affecting intelligent investment in the field of research and innovation. The consequences in the future and for the long-term competitiveness of these countries and regions are catastrophic. However, H2020 cannot solve all these problems; there are other specific instruments like Structural and Investment Funds that are more appropriate to correct this breach. But what we really need, something much more important, is a total change of mentality; all the levels in the government must wager for research and innovation, and from Brussels, intelligent investment in these areas must not only be supported, but fostered.
Thereby, as I already mentioned, the main reason behind the new priority, “spread excellence and expand participation” is to intensify the impact of H2020. And it is completely true that the Parliament was absolutely determining in the introduction of this priority.
This is a new approach. However, the competitive nature of H2020 must not be jeopardised. On the contrary, supporting excellence is still the main goal. Europe needs to use its potential and support excellence wherever it is. There are many excellent scientists in Europe who, due to several reasons such as the lack of know-how, have not participated in previous Framework Programmes. The new priority will allow them to participate in H2020. This is the main goal of this priority. However, we are aware that it is a new initiative and that the budget is limited. We will have to follow the execution of the different actions and introduce the necessary improvements. I think this priority has a huge potential that could be reinforced in future programmes.
There is a lot of excellent science and innovation in Europe that doesn´t get any European support. An ambitious Europe in the field of research and innovation cannot ignore this excellence; on the contrary, it must support it.
JV: H2020 reflects the political priorities of Europe 2020 Strategy and, thereby, the Societal Challenges Pillar will put resources and knowledge from different scientific and technical fields together. The Parliament was extremely combative regarding clean, efficient and renewable energy sources through research and innovation. What has been achieved during the interinstitutional discussions in this matter? Do you think that these achievements are sufficient in view of the current political situation in Eastern Europe with respect to the supply of natural resources?
TR: Meeting the targets proposed in energy and climate requires a clear political and financial commitment. Thereby, one of the most important achievements regarding H2020 was to ensure that 85% of the Social Energy Challenge budget will be dedicated to R&I in renewable energies, energy efficiency, energy storage and intelligent energy networks. A declaration of the Commission unconnected to H2020 specifies the details of this investment and protects the continuation of the activities previously carried out by the IEE Programme (Intelligent Energy Europe) as it ensures 15% of the budget within that 85%, and it establishes that the execution will be conducted by a specific management structure. As a consequence, a maximum of 15% will be dedicated to non-clean energy sources, including the non-renewable part of Hydrogen fuels, which will receive most of that 15%.
The advance towards clean, efficient and renewable energy sources is the only way out for Europe to reduce its external dependence, the environmental footprint and, at the same time, promote the technological advance in clean solutions in other parts of the world. If, on the contrary, we continue to rely on the external supply of natural resources, our vulnerability can only increase. This vulnerability is shown after every political crisis in our environment. The Arab Spring was a clear example and the current crisis in Ukraine is another one. Not only the competitiveness of the EU is in danger; its ambition to become an important and coherent world actor depends upon reducing its dependence on external energy.
The advance towards clean, efficient and renewable energies is the only way out for Europe to reduce its external dependence, the environmental footprint and, at the same time, promote the technological advance in clean solutions in other parts of the world.
JV: Advancing in gender equality is a common commitment in the institutions of the EU. In H2020, this principle is consecrated in the essential documents that seek for gender equilibrium in research and decision-making, integrating gender analysis in the content of research and innovation. During the debates, the Parliament improved the proposal of the Commission. Are you happy with the results obtained or do you think that the European institutions should work more to remove the so-called “glass ceiling”, which is an extended phenomenon that frustrates the efforts of women in the advance of their scientific careers and in reaching important positions, both scientific and managerial?
TR: The orientation towards gender equality is another important novelty in H2020. The proposal of the Commission introduced, for the first time in a Framework Programme, an article related to gender equality. The Parliament reinforced the content of the article in two directions: gender equilibrium must be ensured in the panels and advisory organisms, and gender perspective must be integrated in the activities of research and innovation.
Therefore, the goal is double. Firstly, H2020 must guarantee a greater presence of women in the European Research and Innovation System; secondly, the framework programme imposes a gender perspective ni all the research and innovation activities with the aim of finding solutions that adapt to the needs of the whole population. Both elements have a clear impact on the excellence of research, the efficiency of the programme and the impact of the budget. In the current context, Europe needs to make good use of the resources available, and women constitute a very valuable human resource that must not be ignored any longer.
With this said, we cannot attempt to guarantee gender equality with a single instrument, even though this instrument is the European Framework Programme. Breaking the glass ceiling requires political actions at all the levels of the government that affect all the sectors of activity. However, I think that H2020 constitutes an important step in the correct direction.
JV: Simplification has been one of the mottos that the Commission was determined to implement with the aim of making H2020 a simpler, more coherent and more accessible programme with respect to the previous ones. Thereby, H2020 has a single system of rules, a simplified model of refunding project expenses and a shorter period for grant awarding (thanks to the new Parliament). Do you think that these measures are enough to encourage participation, especially that of the SMEs, or would new bureaucratic burdens eventually be created for participants due to the coexistence of the model of FP7 with that of H2020?
TR: It is true that simplification was one of the main concerns of the Commission during the negotiation period. The Parliament agrees, of course, with the need to simplify the procedures. However, our opinion was, once again, that simplification should be directed towards expanding and improving participation in the programme. Simplification is supposed to increase the number and quality of the participants without preventing the participation of traditional applicants.
Finally, we have reached an agreement that simplifies the project refund model and reduces the time until the signing of the grant agreement. In conclusion, we can confirm that the modifications introduced in the refund model proposed by the Commission do not affect the simplification sought and allow enough differentiation and incentives that stimulate the involvement of the whole spectrum of potential participants, including universities, research centres, industries and SMEs.
JV: H2020 is being implemented. What message would you like to give to the potential participants and, regarding investments in research and innovation, to the member countries?
TR: The potential participants and also the member countries and regions must make use of the European funds available, but they must also use their own resources to build a stronger and more innovative scientific base that allow them to advance towards scientific excellence and industrial leadership. Some governments have been doing this for some time now, even during the recent economic crisis, and currently they enjoy privileged positions with respect to those who turned their backs on science and innovation.
Scientific excellence and industrial leadership don´t emerge from nothingness. The establishment of the appropriate previous conditions and the investment in research and innovation are essential even, or especially, in a period of economic financial difficulties. Europe talks about an intelligent, sustainable and inclusive growth; however, in order to reach that we need more resources and mechanisms. Horizon 2020 can alleviate the reductions and the lack of resources that excellent scientists have to face in many European countries, but it can´t solve by itself the lack of resources in R&I that Europe is facing. Only a shared commitment of investment in R&I, regardless of the political cycles that inevitably occur, can guarantee the competitiveness of our continent at the long term. We must not forget that today´s investment in research and innovation is the only guarantee for our competitiveness tomorrow.
We must not forget that today´s investment in research and innovation is the only guarantee for our competitiveness tomorrow.