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Carlos Moedas
Credit: Michael Chia/European Commission

E.U. science chief wants to work ERC magic on innovation

BRUSSELS—The European Union’s research commissioner Carlos Moedas has proposed setting up a European Innovation Council (EIC) to fund applied research and innovation. Inspired by the well-loved European Research Council (ERC), this idea is one of several measures announced here yesterday to boost innovation across the union.

When Moedas took on the research portfolio in November, the E.U. research program Horizon 2020 and its 7-year budget were settled, and it appeared that the new commission had little leeway to make profound changes during its 5-year term. That hasn’t stopped the commission from raiding Horizon 2020's cash pile to fodder a new investment fund. By citing ERC's success, Moedas also signals that he wants the future EIC to be a game changer.

“Europe does not yet have a world-class scheme to support the very best innovations in the way that the European Research Council is the global reference for supporting excellent science,” Moedas said yesterday at a large research and innovation policy conference held here by the European Commission.

Set up in 2007, the ERC provides generous funding to individual grantees working on any basic research subject in Europe. It has become popular with researchers for setting a high scientific bar while keeping red tape low.

ERC “did so well in terms of doing something that fits the needs of the clients,” Moedas told ScienceInsider after his speech. Likewise, EIC would seek to meet the needs of “innovators,” be they researchers or small companies, he said. It is unclear at this early stage how it would work in practice, but Moedas said the commission would come up with a more detailed proposal by 2017. This would coincide with Horizon 2020's midterm review—a time when the incumbent commission could leave its mark on research policy.

Jerzy Langer, a physicist and former deputy science minister of Poland, has been pushing the idea of an EIC for years. He says ERC has brought prestige and big money to fundamental research, helping reveal and nurture “super talents in Europe.”

“If the same is done for bright minds but directed towards new technologies and new products, then we have something very substantial,” he says.

Langer is chair of the advisory board of Future and Emerging Technologies (FET), a Horizon 2020 subprogram worth about €2.7 billion over 7 years, which aims to “initiate radically new lines of technology,” as the commission puts it. FET programs could serve as a “test bed for the EIC,” and the advisory board is drafting a plan to that effect, he says.

Luc Soete, an economist from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, gave the EIC idea a cautious welcome. “It's an interesting idea to generate the same kind of spirit as we’ve had with the ERC,” Soete told the conference today.

EIC should keep some of ERC's features, in particular making grants portable across Europe, Soete said. But while assessing the excellence of scientific proposals is “relatively straightforward,” selecting innovation proposals will be “a big challenge,” he added.

Others are less enthusiastic. “Academia and business [are] not easy to combine,” stated Jerzy Buzek, chair of the European Parliament's committee responsible for research issues at the conference. Helping innovation flourish requires “networking” rather than additional money or new institutions, he said, praising instead the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, set up in 2008 as one of the pet projects of former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of the researchers' organization EuroScience, also sounded a negative note, telling ScienceInsider that the EIC and the comparison with basic research “sounds like a silly idea.” Helping make venture capital available across borders would benefit innovators more than public money for open-ended competitions, he says.

Commissioner Moedas announced other measures at the conference, including a European Research Integrity Initiative—complete with mechanisms to tackle scientific misconduct—and a "seal of excellence" for research projects, both to be introduced later this year.

The “seal” would help good research projects that don't get past the Horizon 2020 selection process apply for E.U. Structural Funds for regional development, which are channeled through member states. “It's a small step that can make a huge difference” to tap into funds worth about €100 billion between 2014 and 2020, Moedas said.