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Don’t talk! Invest!, says new Director-General of the EU’s Research DG

“We cannot build a knowledge society if we don’t invest in it,” says Robert-Jan Smits, the new Director-General of the EU’s Research Directorate-General. He promises simplified procedures for researchers granted EU funding and greater internationalisation of European research.

After a brief engagement as Deputy Director-General of the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), Mr Smits of The Netherlands will return to the Research DG as its head as from 1 July and begin tackling his list of prioritised tasks: “The first major task will be to continue work on the strategy for research and innovation that will be submitted to EU leaders in October. This will be the first EU plan that links these two crucial components, and our aim is to work both smarter and greener. The plan will be an important building block for achieving the objectives set out in the EU’s ten-year strategy, Europe 2020. Norway is an interesting example of a country that organises its research and innovation efforts under a single research council.” “Then we will complete the midway evaluation of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The evaluation, and the Commission’s further work with it, will be instrumental to the final shaping of the Eighth Framework Programme that will begin in 2013.” More trust in the researchers “We also need to change our administrative system by showing more trust in the researchers so that we no longer bother them with far too detailed control routines. We must stop asking them to spend so much time writing endless reports. The system must be based on trust. By the same token, the deceivers, those who are funded on false premises, will face stricter sanctions in the future,” says Mr Smits categorically. “An especially crucial challenge will be to expand the internationalisation of European research. We must open our doors to the rest of the world. We already have many participants from China and India, but we must open the doors even wider. Strong on knowledge Mr Smits is also concerned about the financing of European research and innovation in the future. The process leading up to the new budget period – from 2013 to 2020 – will be especially important in this regard: “Europe cannot compete with the rest of the world when it comes to raw materials or low wages, and we cannot compete at the expense of the environment either. The only competitive factor we really have to play on is knowledge. It is essential that we invest in the knowledge economy.” “Are you afraid that the financial crisis will lead to a decline in European research investments?” “That would be a terrible thing. We must not kill the goose that will lay golden eggs in the future. Remember how Finland handled the economic crisis that arose about 1990. They had to make significant cuts in the public sector, but they made sure to protect research and education, and they increased their investments in innovation. This laid the groundwork for the Finnish success story we have seen in recent years, with Nokia and other knowledge-based industry. We need to make cuts in the right places. And there are bright spots today as well: Germany, for instance, has invested EUR 18 billion since the financial crisis began.” Too much talk, too little action “But having said this, we still have a long way to go. We have a common European goal of investing three per cent of GDP in research. Today this figure is 1.9 per cent. We talk about it, but we are not really investing enough. We cannot build a knowledge society if we don’t invest in it,” says Mr Smits, before he fires off the following statement: Don’t talk! Invest! A major new initiative is underway in European research policy. The EU’s Joint Programming Initiative (JPI), which currently encompasses 10 joint research programmes, links together national research programmes in European countries in order to achieve a greater return on their research investments. Under this initiative, Norway has received EU approval for a joint programme on marine research in which 10 other countries have expressed an interest in participating. “You have played a key role in designing the JPI. What do you think this initiative will provide?” “Currently, five per cent of European research investments are channelled through European cooperation, and the other 95 per cent are locked into the national and regional programmes. For this reason, the Commission has called for expanded cooperation between the national programmes. Our efforts with the ERA-NET scheme have already shown us what we can achieve, for example, by avoiding a situation in which all the countries allocate money to exactly the same research question while other important tasks are not funded. The joint programmes under JPI take their starting point in concrete political issues that all countries must deal with, whether it is Alzheimer’s, climate change or natural resource management.” But Smits acknowledges there are obstacles ahead: “The objectives of JPI are good, but implementation is a potential problem. The framework conditions are not in place. Ideally, we should get to the point where one specific research council administers the entire process for each JPI call for proposals, including peer review, grant allocations and the rest – in a way that the other partner countries accept the outcome of this process.” “How far away are we from this ideal scenario?” “We are quite far away, unfortunately. But a process is taking place in key circles, not least in EUROHORCs, the European association of the heads of research funding organisations (RFO) and research performing organisations (RPO). This group has not played an active role in Europe before, but this is about to change. We also have individual schemes, such as the one between Germany, Austria and Switzerland in which researchers can take the funding they have received from their national institutions and use it across the border in one of the cooperating countries. This does not sound very dramatic, but it is precisely this type of issue we must resolve on the European level.” “You are very familiar with the situation in Norway. What is your challenge to Norwegian research policy?” “Norway is an extremely active, highly respected partner, and has world-class researchers in the energy and environment field. However, I would like to see better links between national and European research priorities. I would also like to see more participants from Norwegian industry,” says Mr Smits. He proudly points to a picture of himself standing in front of the research vessel “Lance” during a trip to Ny-Ålesund two years ago. “Svalbard is very interesting in a research context, not only geopolitically but also as a barometer of the state of the Earth’s environmental health. We must cherish this. When Svalbard sneezes, the rest of Europe gets the flu.”