From potential to policy

European Commissioner Carlos Moedas. PHOTO: European Commission
European Commissioner Carlos Moedas. PHOTO: European Commission

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Integrated initiatives, creative collaboration and open objectives topped the agenda as EMBL and EMBO hosted a visit from Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation in April. We spoke to Commissioner Moedas to find out more

What were your main goals during your visit of EMBL and EMBO?

The meeting in Heidelberg was a great chance to discuss some of the many common goals of the European Commission, EMBO and EMBL – I feel that the Commission should always be involved in discussions on the molecular life sciences at the European level. I also wanted to show support for both EMBL and EMBO signing the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and highlight our viewpoint that, although the Impact Factor is an easy and well-known indicator of research performance, others should also be considered, which is why we have set up an expert group on Alternative Metrics.

This visit was also the ideal platform to discuss progress, successes and areas for potential improvement for the newly-signed EC-EMBL Work Plan 2016-2017; this outlines common objectives in areas such as research infrastructures and e-infrastructures, personalised medicine, research data sharing, mobility and training of excellent researchers.

I was also interested in engaging in active discussion on how we could work together to fulfil the common goals of open science and open innovation.

What do you regard as the main day-to-day challenges of implementing the Horizon 2020 scientific funding programme? How might the role of the scientific community in achieving the goals of the programme evolve in a positive manner?

The high volume of applications to Horizon 2020 is both a proof of success and one of the challenges we face. We received more than 90,000 proposals between 2014 and March 2016, each of which underwent an in-depth evaluation by independent experts, and we continue to carefully monitor success rates and take measures to increase applicants’ chances of success.

We are in constant dialogue with the scientific community – we listen carefully to their views to ensure that the programme is on track and that all the possibilities offered by Horizon 2020 meet the needs of our beneficiaries. We engage independent observers – senior figures from the research, industry or public sectors – to evaluate funding applications, and regularly assess the efficiency of our processes thanks to the feedback of experts and programme managers. The role of the scientific community here is vital for the success of Horizon 2020.

Horizon 2020 is largely organised around ‘grand societal challenges’: how will you ensure that the funding environment for basic, fundamental research – which has contributed significantly in developing ways to tackle these challenges – remains healthy? What new challenges and opportunities do you see for researchers studying basic, fundamental science?

Horizon 2020 consists of complementary elements, one of which is the European Research Council (ERC) that supports frontier research and excellence in science. The ERC was established also thanks to the contribution of EMBL and EMBO, and is a striking example of how an EU initiative can completely transform the European research and innovation landscape.

Under Horizon 2020, the ERC has a budget of €13 billion, which I think is a healthy amount, even if one could argue that there is always room for more excellent research to be funded across Europe. Fundamental research is under economic and political pressure to deliver impact, but here we need a long-term view and patience, because the talented researchers who benefit from ERC grants are an integral part of what keeps us globally competitive. Their work already delivers a remarkable scientific impact. History shows that real breakthroughs often come from purely curiosity-driven basic research. Such research is the solid foundation of knowledge creation and innovation. It’s important for Europe to lead the way when it comes to giving researchers independence to conduct basic research, while at the same time in ensuring the best results for EU research and innovation as a whole.

Fundamental research is under economic and political pressure to deliver impact, but here we need a long-term view and patience

How might the scientific community work more effectively on such issues?

In our Horizon 2020 projects, open access to results and publications is already the norm and we have been running a pilot initiative on open research data generated by Horizon 2020 projects. But policies are not enough and, to gain leadership, we must also invest in the necessary infrastructure. For Europe’s 1.7 million researchers and 70 million science and technology professionals, we will create a new European Open Science Cloud: a virtual environment to store, share and re-use their data across disciplines and borders. Researchers and innovators will be able to access and re-use data, while reducing the cost of data storage and high-performance analysis.

We have the full support of the European Member States on this: in late May, the Competitiveness Council adopted the conclusions of the European Council on “Open, data-intensive and networked research as a driver for faster and wider innovation” which states that Member States “look forward to the possible development of action plans or strategies for open science”. Member States have also expressed interest in the development of a European Open Science Agenda.

We need to work together to make sure that open science develops in the right way to make the EU more competitive and maintain excellence in science. This requires the involvement of all key stakeholders involved, including publishers, research performing organisations, research funding organisations, and businesses, and will imply a review of how science is evaluated, the creation of new research funding mechanisms and alternative ways of publishing.

We need to work together to make sure that open science develops in the right way

One of the major concerns for enhancing the impact of science and technology on our economies is how we smooth the path for innovative ideas to achieve their full potential. What approach is needed to do this? Why is this a good time to address this? How might it take shape? 

Europe is excellent at research, but not so good at translating its results into new products and services. We must do better in market-creating innovations like new internet services, clean energy technologies and better health care. That is why I am advocating for the creation of a European Innovation Council to attract the best innovators and help them to grow their companies in Europe.

We launched a public consultation this spring to gather everyone’s views. This call for ideas attracted over a thousand responses, and the main messages are clear: the vast majority agree that market-creating innovation is indeed a particular challenge for Europe, and many have also expressed their concern that innovators find it hard to find their way in the current range of EU support schemes. These responses confirm my impression that we should further improve EU innovation support and the EIC should address this issue.

We’re also looking at new innovation-funding instruments to support Europe’s most promising innovators. They need more venture capital: this is the biggest weakness in the European innovation system: we invest less than a fifth in venture capital than the US does (5 billion Euro in 2014 compared to 26 billion Euro in the US) and this must change. So the Commission is developing a proposal for a pan-European venture capital Fund-of-Funds to tackle three main problems. First, European funds are too small — and small funds can only invest in small firms, and can’t finance them as they grow. Second, 90% of venture capital is concentrated in just eight Member States, and cross-border investments are uncommon — this fragmentation prevents larger funds emerging. And third, EU venture capital draws heavily on public funding. The latest figures from 2014 shows that public funding makes up 35% of EU venture capital, up from 14% in 2008 – we need to attract much more investment from private and institutional investors, such as pension funds. This last point is our primary objective and the main added value of this initiative. The next step will be the launch of a call for expression of interest to manage the pan-European Fund-of-Funds, which I expect to take place in the coming few months.

We must do better in market-creating innovations like new internet services, clean energy technologies and better health care

What progress have you seen in driving forward improvements to issues such as gender balance in science? What challenges remain in terms of enhancing diversity in laboratories and addressing other issues such as boosting mobility for researchers?

Promoting gender equality is a priority of the European policy for research and innovation, and the Commission is making a tremendous effort in that direction. Our statistics show some positive trends, for example, the proportion of female PhD students went up from 43.4% in 2004 to 47% in 2012. Similarly, the proportion of female researchers grew from 30% in 2006 to 33% in 2012, and that of female heads of institutions in the higher education sector went from 15.5% in 2010 to 20.1% in 2014.

So things are moving in the right direction, but slowly. I am committed to accelerating this trend and have included specific criteria to that effect in Horizon 2020: for instance, gender balance in research teams is now a ranking factor for proposals, when all other factors are equal.

When it comes to mobility, surveys show that European researchers are highly mobile, with around 30% having worked abroad for more than three months during the last ten years. Up to 94% of EU researchers who have worked abroad consider it was beneficial to their career progression.

We want to promote mobility even further: later this year, we plan to launch RESAVER, a pan-European pension scheme for researchers to enable them to retain their supplementary pension benefits when taking up a job in a different country.

EURAXESS is another side of that effort: this pan-European initiative offers more than 250 service centres in 40 European countries to advise European and third-country researchers planning their move, on issues like visas, social security arrangements, housing and child care. The EU also strives to attract talent from all over the world with the help of the Scientific Visa package, which simplifies the procedure of admitting third-country researchers to Europe for the purpose of scientific research.