Nobel Insults, Radical Departures, and Budget Battles

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Gretchen Vogel
2011-02-17 11:30
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European Union Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had little direct experience with research when she took office a year ago. She has become, however, an outspoken booster of research as a foundation for Europe's economic and social stability. This week in Science* she talks about her first year on the job, support for basic research, hopes for cutting red tape, and plans for reshaping the E.U.'s giant research-funding program. Here are additional excerpts from the interview last week in her Brussels office.

Q: At the Nobel Prize banquet in December 2010, physics laureate Andre Geim criticized E.U. science funding in his speech, calling it an "idiocracy." What did you think of his comments?

M.G.-Q.: You were lucky you weren't there! I was there. I was embarrassed. I think it was a surprise. For me, it was a wonderful occasion, particularly because one of the people who was getting the Nobel Prize was an ERC [European Research Council] grantee [Geim's co-winner, Konstantin Novoselov]. So I was very excited about that. The evening before, I had met Novoselov and had a very good conversation with him, and everything he had to say was really positive. He did say, "Well, you know it's quite complicated when you're dealing with the E.U.," and I was explaining to him what we are trying to do to cut down on the bureaucracy.

But then to go to the dinner and Professor Geim says, well ... It was a strange kind of attack in a way because he talked about politicians being involved in the distribution of funding, which of course was not true.

But apart from that he made a very serious point. And it was interesting, because when I came to present the Common Strategic Framework [the proposed new funding program] to the [European] Commission [the E.U.'s executive body], one of the slides that I had showed all the hundreds of little instruments here, there, and everywhere spread right across the commission—not only in the research and innovation area, but right across. It was like a muddled up jigsaw puzzle. And it was shocking to my colleagues around the table.

Even though we'd talked about how bureaucratic it was and how the administrative burden was so big and complicated and all the rest of it. Nobody had actually sat down up to then and put down on a sheet of paper what it really looked like. That was a watershed moment because people said, "Oh no, we can't have this anymore."

And then [Education] Commissioner [Androulla] Vassiliou and I recounted our experience at the Nobel ceremony. And I said I was so proud, I was like a mother whose child was getting a Nobel Prize. I was really so proud of what the ERC has accomplished, aiding such scientists. And then suddenly they pulled the rug out from under you because they talk about the bureaucracy. So I said, "We can never allow that to happen again."

So it was a significant thing. It was embarrassing and all of that. But the timing of when it happened fed into what I was telling the commission in relation to having a common strategic framework and reducing bureaucracy.

As we go into the budget negotiations, it would be a pity if the only thing that was being written about was all the negative in relation to the Framework Programme [the E.U.'s existing funding scheme]. That gives those who want to reduce your budget a stick to beat you with. That's why it's very important to me to be able to roll out the positive stories that have happened. We have, for example, a wonderful slide of the new big Airbus A380 showing all the framework funding for the projects that delivered this.

Q: You've said several times that the new funding program will be a "radical departure," a "clean break" from the Framework Programmes. What is the most radical aspect of your new plans, laid out in a green paper this week?

M.G.-Q.: I would think that we'll probably get some radical ideas throughout the consultation procedure. And that's what we're looking for: innovative ideas, radical ideas. People out there, they're the stakeholders, they're the consumers of this work. They're the people I'm encouraging to come and get involved and engaged in this consultation. And I'm hoping that they will come up with radical ideas.

Q: You have said you want to strengthen the ERC. Some European researchers are pushing for the idea of not only strengthening the ERC but also modeling more of the rest of the new funding program on it. For example, some have suggested setting up several independent agencies to distribute grants.

M.G.-Q.: The green paper is giving us an opportunity to do something radically different, something that is totally new, something that does not look like what we have had before. At the same time, we can't get around the rules simply by setting up outside bodies. E.U. monies are subject to laws that are made by the European Parliament and the member states. And the commission can't change them unilaterally just by setting up different structures. We're dealing with E.U. taxpayers' money. So we have to account for that.

Q: Is the agency idea a remote possibility?

M.G.-Q.: Anything is a remote possibility. But that has to be done within the confines of parliament and council. It's not something that I can decide to do tomorrow morning. But we do want to externalize more of what we're doing so that it's a better fit. In a modern kind of world that we live in, it's something that we should do more and more of.

Q: The green paper mentions the use of prizes to motivate researchers toward specific goals. What sorts of prizes are you considering? Something like the X Prizes that define a specific goal and reward the first team to achieve it? Or something more like lifetime achievement awards?

M.G.-Q.: It could be both. [Using prizes] is something that I'm very committed to doing. What we have to decide is, what's the target? Is it a single piece of research? A single researcher? Is it young scientists? But I think it's something we should do. It's the recognition of someone really getting a breakthrough or coming up with a really big idea, and we should be encouraging that.

It's important that whatever we do involves the 27 member states. The question is how to do that without setting up a really complicated system. You know, I'm always jealous of the United States because it's one country, one language. So when President [Barack] Obama decides to do something, it's done. Whereas here, you're dealing with all the languages, all the different political systems. So it's far more difficult.

Q: How will the European Union's structural funds fit into the new program?

M.G.-Q.: [Regional Policy] Commissioner [Johannes] Hahn has a large pot of money for research infrastructure, which he wants to use to help build this stairway to excellence that we talk about. Some of the newer member states say that they have real difficulty in reaching excellence. That's because while they have great scientists, they leave the country because they don't have the kind of research infrastructure that would encourage them to stay. And of course not having it to encourage their own scientists to stay, they don't' have it to encourage scientists from elsewhere to come and spend time in the country to build that excellence. So I know that Commissioner Hahn—and certainly I—see that using structural funds in a very strategic way to help build that infrastructure would be a very, very good thing to do.

Q: What changes are you asking European Parliament and the E.U. Council of Ministers to make regarding red tape?

M.G.-Q.: We have asked the parliament to look at a tolerable risk of error. [Ed note: The commission uses various methods, such as audits, to reduce the risk of financial errors or fraud in E.U. programs.] To meet current standards, we would have to do 5200 audits. Now you can imagine what that means. That means going into the smallest project, the smallest institute—going in to a single researcher and checking that every timesheet is filled properly. You can imagine the nightmare that is for every researcher, who is not interested in paperwork. They're not involved in fraud. They're not interested in anything other than doing their work. And so that's the kind of thing that irritates people. And we're trying to explain to the [Parliament's] budget control committee that this is what we need. We want to reduce that overall burden and concentrate on the really high-risk areas. We live in hope.

Q: Two countries that are not E.U. members but participate in the Framework Programmes—Norway and Switzerland—have said they oppose a budget increase. Will that make your campaign for more funds more complicated?

M.G.-Q.: No. As far as I'm concerned, I have 27 member states that I have to convince that we need a bigger budget. And I went to the parliament last week. The members of the parliament were shocked that only one in three grants deemed worthy actually receive funding. It seemed to me that certainly they didn't have difficulty in giving more funding, because they felt that the funding would be used very well.

I think it is important for member states to realize that we're not spending taxpayers' money on something that can be done better in a member state. It's adding value to whatever is being done in the 27 member states.

We haven't been good in actually telling people what we've done research on, what it has achieved, and what the added value is. And I think we need to do that. I think it's important for the member states as they are looking at their budgets: Where are we going to put very scarce money? Let's put it into something that really delivers extra. And of course the Innovation Union, as I always say to everybody, is an economic policy.

Q: If those countries were to drop out, how would it affect the program's value and effectiveness?

M.G.-Q.: I'm not so sure how realistic it is that any one of them would pull out. They see the Framework Programme as being critical to their policies. It gives them an in to the 27 member states of the union. It also allows them to become part of consortia that are collaborating right across borders, right across the world.

The amount of collaboration and the money that is given to consortia that have partners around the world is tremendously important, especially from the talks I've had with researchers and scientists. They find that really enriching. In fact, we always have people saying, "How can we become associated with the Framework Programme?" rather than having people saying, "Look, we'd like to pull out." The countries that you mentioned are very, very significant contributors, and they're very deeply involved right across the program and I would very much want to encourage that to continue.

Q: How important is establishing a single E.U. patent scheme, and how detrimental to your innovation agenda would it be if the European Court of Justice issues a ruling blocking the idea?

M.G.-Q.: It's very important. I'm a former minister for justice [in Ireland], so I'm very reluctant to talk about court cases. But let me talk about the patent. The lack of a patent is costing European companies 20 times more to patent than it does in the United States. Every company that comes to see me, it's one of the big, big issues on their list of complaints. I think [Commissioner for Internal Market and Services] Michel Barnier has done a tremendous amount of work to get us to this stage, and I have great confidence that he will deliver. And I hope that nothing happens that prevents that from happening.

Q: The European Council this month endorsed the creation of a European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Aging. What is a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) and how does it differ from Joint Programming Initiatives, the European Institute of Technology's Knowledge Communities, and all of the other coordination and cooperation initiatives coming from the commission?

M.G.-Q.: All the others are new instruments. This is not. It will take from the different instruments that are there already and it will weave them together. For example, you have a Joint Programming Initiative on neurodegenerative diseases. And I can see a very close association between that and the EIP for healthy aging, for example.

The EIPs will be led by the commissioners in charge of a given area, not by me. The heads of the aging partnership are [Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner] John Dalli and [Digital Agenda Commissioner] Neelie Kroes. They've already had stakeholder gatherings. And there is huge interest from the private sector: the IT industry, the medical devices industry, the pharma industry, and the nutrition area. But also, for example, the construction industry and the transport industry are very interested.

So first it has this clear and verifiable goal: Two additional years of healthy living. Then it has good market potential for E.U. companies. And then you have a number of elements of policy being worked on together. We feel it's our answer to the Sputnik moment.

It's a pilot project, though. We now have to set down the kind of governance—very light governance, where we have representatives of the member states, members of parliament and so on at the top level. And then you have an operational, much smaller, board under them that actually delivers. And we have to wait and see what happens.

Once the EIP is set up and people see that this is what the commission wants delivered, they look and they say, "Right. What are we doing in the innovative medicines area? Where does that fit in? Let's immediately get involved in the EIP so that we can deliver the work we are being paid for by the commission to do."

At the moment there's no extra funding. But I can foresee extra monies for other innovation partnerships that will come down the road—the council agreed on the pilot and would like to be consulted again before the next ones are rolled out. But I can see one in raw materials, for example, energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture, water efficiency.

*Máire Geoghegan-Quinn's interview in Science will be live at 2 p.m., EST.

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