From €3 billion in 1984 to €77 billion in 2014. Research is the third largest item of expenditure in the EU today. To take it still further, the Commission would like to spend more and orchestrate synergies between public and private actors.
In 2000, the fifteen member countries of the European Union launched the Lisbon Strategy. Its goal was ambitious: to create a knowledge-based economy by devoting 3% of domestic GDP to research by 2010. An ambitious aim that fell short. But the budget devoted to research is rising steadily. From €6.3 billion in the early 2000s, it is now €77 billion. This investment has enabled the EU to become a leading scientific power. European research programs and individual funding, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship, have resulted in major discoveries and have won several dozen prestigious awards. Last year, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Gérard Mourou, professor at the École Polytechnique and coordinator of a European laser research program. The EU is now responsible for one third of the world's scientific and technological output. However, the priority is not only to increase the funds allocated to research, but also to translate these scientific results into commercial innovations.
GPS vs Galileo
Who remembers Quaero, the "European Google" launched by France, then financed by the EU, which finished at the end of 2013 without ever coming close to rivalling the US search engine? This failure is emblematic of Europe's difficulties in really being in the running in the innovation stakes. And particularly in relation to the world of digital technology. Despite its financial commitment, at the turn of the 2010s, the EU had only one major software publisher in the world's top 10, while the United States is unchallenged as the clear leader in terms of internet giants and publishers. Europe could become even more marginal in the face of China's increasing power. Since 2015, the percentage of GDP invested in research by China has exceeded that of the EU.
The reasons for the delay have been well analysed. "The EU is hindered by its fragmented market and the lack of access to funding," says Willem Jonker, CEO European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Digital. And when EU members do agree on a common topic of research, the economic fair-return obligation is likely to curb project profitability.
Despite these drawbacks, several major industrial programs have been successful. For example Galileo, the satellite positioning system launched in 2004 to compete with the American GPS. After numerous delays and technical problems, it has been operational since 2016 and in 2018 had over 500 million customers. This program illustrates the need for the EU to go through the phase of building its innovation ecosystem. "We often think that innovation, especially in the digital world, moves quickly. But the infrastructure has to be developed beforehand - which takes time and money," says Willem Jonker. Future economic successes can now be built on this infrastructure.
Focus on innovation
The EITs have for years been the only ones working on innovation at European level. Incubators able to attract businesses, startups and universities, they also offer training and finance. EIT Digital has helped to develop some startups from the digital sector, such as MatchX, a startup specializing in the Internet of Things. Its founder, Xin Hu, went through EIT Digital’s Master School before launching Match X in 2017.
Determined not to be left behind, the EU has moved up a gear. The first areas to be developed emerged in 2017. A report by Pascal Lamy, commissioned by the European Commission to reflect on the means of maximizing its research efforts, recommended increasing the research budget, but above all put the emphasis on the need to structure European policy by supporting inventive ecosystems, focusing on breakthrough innovations and creating synergies between different funding instruments. In addition, the report suggests improving entrepreneurship training for students and researchers.
Lastly, it suggests setting ‘missions’ - ambitious projects focusing on a specific sector with a strong potential for technical and social innovation. For example, a mission may consist of producing zero-carbon steel or curing three-quarters of cancer patients. The idea is to follow the same approach as Darpa, the US public agency, focusing on breakthrough innovations, which was involved in the creation of the internet and autonomous cars.
In 2018, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas took up the proposal in Pascal Lamy's report to create a European innovation council. This one-stop shop should help to identify the most interesting projects. The proposal received unexpected support when President Macron declared himself in favor of a European Darpa during his speech on Europe delivered at the Sorbonne in 2017.
In mid-2018, the European Commission published its recommendations for member states in relation to the Horizon Europe program. It has major research and innovation ambitions since it recommends raising the budget to €100 billion. The increase is in fact even higher as it takes into account the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. London contributes €10 billion to the current program. In parallel, the Commission is taking several Lamy report proposals on board. It is acting on the proposal to set missions for innovators. "If you say you are going to work on a map of the brain, it resonates less with the general public than if you propose a program for curing Alzheimer's disease," says Carlos Moedas.
AI: the holy grail
Support for easily identifiable research projects will put EU at the forefront of the major scientific topics of the future. In particular artificial intelligence, for which the EU has launched a strategic plan. "It is based on three pillars: strengthening Europe's technological and industrial AI capabilities, anticipating changes in the labour market through education and training, and ensuring an appropriate ethical and legal framework," says the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel. With a substantial increase in funding for AI projects, the EU is demonstrating its understanding of the technological and economic issues facing us today and in the future.
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