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Innovation needs a bodyguard

Horizon 2020 needs expert panels to make sure that it stays mission-driven and problem-solving. Otherwise, it risks becoming just another science-funding programme, warns Christopher Hull.

In February 2010, at her confirmation hearing, research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said that she wanted the EU’s framework programme to tackle societal grand challenges and to bolster Europe’s economic competitiveness—to be an innovation programme. It should contribute directly to the EU2020 objectives of smart, sustainable, inclusive growth, generate employment and wellbeing for Europe’s citizens, and help us out of the economic and financial crisis.

Almost three years on, as European Commission, Council and Parliament prepare to finalise Horizon 2020, everybody professes to be doing innovation, including the many proponents of ‘scientific excellence’. Their cunning syllogism is that (excellent) science produces (excellent) knowledge; innovation requires knowledge; therefore science drives innovation.

Underlying this is the ultimately banal notion that every item of human knowledge was, at its origin, a (scientific) discovery. It also conveniently overlooks the time lag between scientific discoveries and their practical application, which is generally years, if not decades.

In reality, innovation is mostly pulled by market opportunity and societal need, and it feeds on the cumulative stock of knowledge, not just yesterday’s scientific discoveries. The proponents of scientific excellence are often really advocates of curiosity-driven and investigator-driven enquiry. Such science has an essential place in the research repertoire, and given its uncertain outcomes it must be able to rely on public funding. But it is only a small part of the whole.

Horizon 2020, as an innovation programme, needs to emphasise mission-driven, problem-solving research. That means programmed research, responding to policy priorities, set out in dynamically evolving science and technology road maps.

But there is a serious risk that Horizon 2020 will become just another science funding programme. It is not certain that the Commission will have the resolve to resist the calls for ‘excellent science’ from the large and well-organised academic lobby, to which it has often bowed in the past. Policymakers need to give thought to how to protect the programme’s innovation objectives.

There are two main governance issues. One is the need to ensure that the programme retains its focus on innovation. The other, equally urgent, is the need to bring order to the confusing array of EU-level structures and instruments that have emerged over the past several years.

Since the later years of the sixth Framework Programme, a plethora of instruments and structures has taken root on the EU-sponsored innovation landscape, in an opportunistic, uncoordinated fashion. We have the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities, European Technology Platforms, contractual public-private partnerships, Joint Technology Initiatives, Joint Programming Initiatives, European Innovation Partnerships, the SET-Plan for energy research, and more besides.

These structures are not going to rationalise themselves spontaneously. Each will claim a special status, and each will aim to influence the Commission’s annual work programmes. To subsume the self-interest of these structures to programme objectives, help avoid duplication and needless competition, and identify gaps in existing work, Horizon 2020 needs an overarching governance framework charged with safeguarding the programme’s innovation focus.

The European Parliament’s Horizon 2020 rapporteurs Maria da Graça Carvalho and Teresa Riera Madurell have proposed advisory bodies somewhat along these lines, and there has been talk in both Council and Parliament of some form of advisory body for health research, but the presumption seems to be that such advisory bodies should comprise mostly scientists. That will not do.

Rather, what we need is an innovation council for the second pillar of Horizon 2020, Industrial Leadership, and for each of the challenges covered by the third pillar, Societal Challenges. Councils should consist of high-level individuals representative of—but acting independently from—interested communities such as politics, business, research and users.

Each council’s first task would be the production, and subsequent updating, of innovation priorities and related strategic road maps. These maps should guide the Commission’s preparation of its operational work programmes. The council should also advise on present and future planned actions and highlight neglected subjects and duplicated effort.

Please, no, you may groan, not another layer of bureaucracy. But it is not bureaucracy, for the councils would simply advise. They would be a counterweight to the power of special interests and an implementing Commission that has found it difficult to resist lobbies.

There is urgency, for the launch of Horizon 2020 is little more than a year away. The innovation councils ought to be in place and operational.

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Christopher Hull is secretary general of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations.