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Geoghegan-Quinn Surveys Europe's Science Horizon

10 December 2013 1:15 pm
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Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

European Union, 2013

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

BRUSSELS—European scientists are celebrating a windfall in funding for the European Union’s flagship research program, Horizon 2020, which is set to receive almost €70 billion over the next 7 years, an increase of nearly 30% over its predecessor, Framework Programme 7. ScienceInsider caught up with the bonanza’s chief architect, European research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, here at the commission’s headquarters, just before the first calls for proposals go live on 11 December. Her remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How will things change for scientists under Horizon 2020?

M.G.-Q.: Horizon 2020 is putting a lot of research money into finding answers to societal challenges [such as climate change]. It's challenging all the disciplines to step outside their comfort zones. We don't have neat little boxes [for each scientific area] like we had before, and that's a criticism I suppose in one way by some of the disciplines. Everybody's being asked to do things differently, and that's always challenging.

Q: What's been your biggest challenge in the past years?

M.G.-Q.: When I came into the job I inherited a directorate-general that was project-based [and set about transforming it] into a policy-based one. That's always a slow process, particularly when you're dealing with one of the biggest directorates in the commission. It's like having a huge oil tanker out at sea and trying to turn it. That takes time.

Q: How does that translate in practice?

M.G.-Q.: We have a huge externalization program: a lot of the [project management] work that would have been done within the commission in the past will be [outsourced to executive agencies]. And the work will change because of how Horizon 2020 is structured, without those neat little boxes. Of course the proof is going to be in the eating of the pudding. The hard work starts now.

Q: While Horizon 2020 was taking shape, a battle raged over how to fund the ITER fusion reactor project. Is ITER's budget now safe until 2020?

M.G.-Q.: Yes, it is. ITER is a hugely exciting project, but we couldn't continue with the situation where every time there was a cost overrun, the research budget was raided [to plug the gap]. That was [why the European Commission proposed] that ITER's budget should be outside of the [European Union's 7-year budget caps]. We didn't succeed in this, but it is outside Horizon 2020's budget, which is very important from the researchers' point of view.

Q: In 2000, the European Union set to create the European Research Area (ERA), to enable the free movement of scientists and knowledge across the continent by 2014. But that project is still far from completion. Why is Europe missing the deadline?

M.G.-Q.: My gut instinct as a politician was that you achieve this kind of thing by a piece of legislation. But I realized that it would take so long to go through the whole process that we would have lost several years where we could have made progress. A lot of ministers from the member states were also wary about legislation.

But in the meantime, what are the quick fixes that we can work on? We have signed [agreements with European universities, research organizations, and funding agencies, which committed to put in place measures to support the ERA]. But of course the member states have to step up to the plate. There are huge structural reforms that need to happen in the research landscapes in the different member states.

Q: Where should they start?

M.G.-Q.: When I meet researchers from Europe who have left, to the United States in particular, they say in the U.S. there's a very clear career path for them, which there isn't in most E.U. countries. If you want to reverse [the brain drain] you need a very clear career structure that's open, merit-based, and transparent. Then you'll bring them back.

And member states have to invest in research and innovation. It's worrying that in 2011 we had the first decline in [public] research and innovation investment since 2008. That's something I've said clearly in all of the member states that I've been to: Research is an economic policy. It's no longer a little policy over in the corner that works only for researchers. It's a really short-term view to say: “OK, we'll save money by cutting the budget for research and innovation.” In actual fact, it takes you forever to make up for the time where you didn't have the investment.

Q: Has research policy become more important in Europe?

M.G.-Q.: For everybody, unemployment is the big issue. And where are the good jobs? They are going to be in research and innovation: high-quality, well-paid jobs that are secure for the future. And when I visit universities, academics say that E.U. money used to be the icing on the cake, but that's no longer the case—it's absolutely, fundamentally important to their budget now.

Q: What will be the fattest files on your successor's desk?

M.G.-Q.: The ERA will be a big one. I said I wouldn't rule out legislation [in this area] but that will be a matter for my successor to decide.

We will issue a Communication [before the summer] next year together with the commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn. It will be about innovation investment and won't in any way be a document that is aiming to tie the hands of my successor, but it will very clearly lay out the plans we put forward, what we achieved and what yet needs to be done.

Q: Your 5-year term ends next October. How do you make sure Horizon 2020 stays relevant?

M.G.-Q.: When the Seventh Framework Programme started in 2007, there was no such thing as a climate change challenge or a food security issue. FP7 was very much like a straitjacket. One of the things that we worked strongly on is ensuring that Horizon 2020 is flexible, so if issues arise that we haven't even thought about now, at least the program will be able to respond to that.

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