Spain tackles the European paradox
The Spanish government has made great strides in reforming its national policies for the support of innovation. Now holding the presidency of the European Union, Spain is promoting its concept of a European Research and Innovation Area alongside the Sixth Framework Programme. Euroabstracts talked to Dr Arturo GonzÃ¡lez Romero, Director General of Technology Policy in the Ministry of Science and Technology, about how the 'European paradox'- the gap between academic research and industrial innovation - should be addressed. A re you happy with the way the Sixth Framework Programme is developing? Do you think the priorities are right?
Arturo GonzÃ¡lez Romero: Yes, the EU has a long experience of the Framework Programme and has learned from its earlier versions. Now we're trying to address what has been called the 'European paradox'; that is, trying to make good the European weakness in transforming research of the highest standard into industrial development and this, in turn, into commercial results.
FP6 strengthens the industrial character of the programme and promotes activities closer to the market. In its famous Green Paper on Innovation ( 1 ) the Commission warned of the need to get more involved in near-market activities, in order to reduce the innovation gap which we still have in Europe compared with our principal competitors, the United States and Japan.
Spain is on record as saying that it wants to turn the European Research Area into a European Research and Innovation Area. What is the thinking behind this?
That's right, we have to transform the European Research Area into a European Research and Innovation Area. And the motives have much to do with what I have just said. Innovation is a key component of the technological policies of the countries of the Union. And that's true for Spain as well. Our old national R&D plan has recently been transformed into the National Plan for Research, Development and Innovation, so strengthening its industrial character. And, for the first time in my country, tax incentives have been introduced for innovation which were once restricted to R&D. The European Research and Innovation Area must also move in this direction.
What would be the practical benefits to European Industry?
The opening up of the market will certainly contribute to making European industry more competitive. It will also strengthen it, not only against world giants such as the US and Japan but also against the very dynamic and competitive emerging economies such as those of south-east Asia. It has been said, and I agree with this, that Europe is very good at turning euros into research but poor at turning research into euros. So research, too, and ultimately the economy, must be aligned towards activities with a greater future, which create more jobs and add more value . So, for example, there will be large public and private investments in telecommunications, environment, biotechnology, and so on, as well as in some traditional, mature industries such as automobiles, aeronautics and chemicals.
A global strategy for Europe
You also want to develop the international dimension. Can you give us some examples of how that would work?
The national market has become too small, and even the European market is not big enough. We have to open up to the world, and not just commercially but also to manufacturing and engineering worldwide - or rather, we have to make alliances, joint ventures, and so on. This is the first step in the whole internationalisation strategy. But it's a two-way strategy, because it's also important to know how to attract foreign investment which will create jobs, wealth and technology.
You ask for examples. There are several significant ones: Airbus, Eurofighter and, in the future, the Galileo navigation system. These projects are the realities of joint European co-operation but we could do the same in the shipbuilding and railway sectors, and we are already working on that.
It's also important for the EU to adopt a coherent external trade policy. The recent cases of the US steel tariffs and of unfair competition in the shipbuilding sector from Korean shipyards are good examples of how important it is for us in Europe to agree common positions concerning external trade.
In the case of Spain, there is another important factor in matters which have an international dimension: the role that Spain plays as a bridge to the Latin American countries, both through historical ties and through a common language. Spain has to make the most of this privileged position because it belongs to two worlds: to Europe through its integration within the EU and to Latin America through its historical relationships.
Private sector R&D investment is needed
What concrete steps should the EU now take to set up this European Research and Innovation Area?
Although it has made itself into an important economic force, the EU will have to go on increasing its R&D budgets, and - it's important to point this out - not only in the public sector but also in the private. In countries like Spain the private sector still invests relatively little in R&D, little more than half of the total. But in the more advanced and competitive economies the private sector can invest as much as three-quarters of total R&D, or even more.
I also think it's important to create more powerful financial support tools, which suit present-day economic reality. Spain has just radically transformed its traditional technology financing system. We no longer award non-repayable grants. We now support businesses through loans, on very good terms of course - zero interest rates, long repayment periods, and so on - and also with instruments such as venture capital and guarantees.
Spain is also promoting R&D as the driving force behind sustainable development. Can you tell us more about this?
We cannot go on burning oil and pouring emissions into the atmosphere. We have to look for new sources of energy and harness R&D to make products that are less polluting and more powerful. We are talking here about both optimising energy use and renewable energy, both which are becoming important sectors in Europe and particularly in Spain. In some fields, such as wind energy and solar energy, Spain is a world leader, and today you can see wind farms all over the country producing a large amount of energy. In Spain, thanks to the Ministry of Science and Technology, major support programmes have been set in motion for energy R&D, the environment and, ultimately, therefore, for sustainable development.
I want to point out that care for the environment, as well as being socially necessary, is also a good business opportunity, and more and more companies are developing new products and processes to tackle and solve all of kinds of environmental problems. Europe could take a lead here with so many creative companies offering environmental solutions.
Support for shipbuilding, steel, automobiles and the environment
What other initiatives does Spain want to encourage while it holds the presidency?
It is difficult in an interview to summarise the many initiatives of the Spanish presidency. But, for simplicity, I will tell you about the three major areas which we are working on.
The first, as we have discussed, is the European Research and Innovation Area, as well as the preparation of the Sixth Framework Programme.
The second is the development of the information society and of telecommunications. In some sectors, such as mobile phones, Spain is taking big steps in the principal technologies, such as UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System).
The third is support for industrial sectors, and especially shipbuilding, steel, automobiles and the environment. Shipbuilding because Europe faces a difficult situation and we have to support the manufacturers so that they don't go to the wall. We have to invest in technologies and establish new instruments such as a tax list and a tonnage tax in order to come out on top. Steel, because it will fall to Spain to oversee the winding up of the European Coal and Steel Community, which will disappear in July 2002. The ECSC was, as you know, the origin of what has become the European Union. The automobile industry, because it faces great challenges and many directives are being produced, such as the one on recycling, with important repercussions for the whole industry. The environment, finally, is a compulsory theme not only for the Spanish presidency but for any presidency. We have to make major technological efforts to bring about sustainable development, if we are to maintain our industrial strength.