Europe Aims to Boost Economy in New Innovation Plan

Europe has a new plan aiming to ensure that science will get the continent's economy humming again. The Innovation Union, adopted yesterday by the European Commission, is a new attack on one of Europe's intractable problems: Research is plentiful and of relatively high quality, but it doesn't as often as desired result in products and services that create jobs and wealth for the 27 member states of the European Union.

The Innovation Union document is billed as the "flagship" of the Europe 2020 plan for economic growth. High in aspirations, the plan proposes a wide range of measures—from bolstering funding for science and radically simplifying the European Unions's own funding procedures to removing barriers to international collaboration.

If that sounds familiar, that's because many of the proposals have been official policy for years; they have just been hard to implement. The so-called European Research Area (ERA), for instance, aims to create a borderless market for researchers. But most grants still aren't portable, and moving to a university 30 kilometers away that happens to be in another country can put a major dent in a scientist's retirement plan as pensions often can't be transferred. (The new strategy says ERA should be completed by 2014.)

Despite the echoes of past promises, the new document does represent a shift in policy, says Luc Soete, an expert on innovation who heads UNU-MERIT, a research institute in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Existing policies have focused primarily on organizing the supply of knowledge for innovation, Soete says. Now there's a new emphasis on increasing demand—that is, making sure it's easier for companies to actually use the fruits of science.

For instance, Innovation Union urges the quick adoption of the E.U. patent, which could make it cheaper for companies to protect their intellectual property. Despite the existence of a European Patent Office, obtaining patent protection across the 27 member states costs at least 15 times more than getting a U.S. patent, the commission says, mostly because of legal and translation fees. Proposals for a E.U.-wide system should be adopted this year, the Innovation Union proclaims, so that the first patents can be issued in 2014.

To boost demand for innovation, the plan also proposes to make it easier for innovative companies to access venture capital—an area where Europe lags far behind the United States—and promises harmonization and standardization of rules governing the introduction of innovative products and services. The current fragmentation is an important barrier that is holding back private investment in innovation, says Soete, who wrote a paper for the commission about the costs of a non-innovative Europe. "How do you expect Philips to invest in a medical care systems if they have to comply with different regulations in every country?" he says.

The commission also proposes a new kind of partnership bringing together supply and demand, called Innovation Partnerships. The first of these, a pilot that could start in 2011, will be focused on ageing and aims to give Europeans two more healthy years of life by 2020. But details on how the partnerships will operate need yet to be fleshed out.

The document will be discussed in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday at the Competitiveness Council, a gathering of European ministers. The European Parliament will host its own meeting on Innovation in Europe in Brussels on the same two days.