Is a reorganised DG RTD truly equipped to reform and improve the Science, Technology and Innovation systems of Member States?

In ScienceIBusiness of March 2, 2021, Jean-Eric Paquet, Director General of the Research and Innovation Directorate General (DG RTD) of the European Commission (EC), explained the rationale of the most recent reorganization of DG RTD. The goal is to move more people to the Research Executive Agency (REA) so that DG RTD can focus even more on policy issues, especially to help Member States to reform and improve their Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) systems. That sounds like a curious motivation, and it raises again the overarching issue of whether DG RTD and by extension the Commissioner responsible for research and innovation is still evading the only crucial issue they are facing which is to think about and to clarify what the European Union (EU) should concentrate on in its Research and Innovation policies. The EU Framework Programmes are very important but as long as EU funding is only about 10 percent of overall public funding in the EU, the EU should focus on where it has the largest impact. Reforming national STI systems wouldn’t seem to be a good case. That is because, while a larger emphasis on policy is very sensible, one may question whether the expertise and experience of DG RTD staff are up to the task of reforming national STI systems[1] and thus to proclaim this as a key task of EC civil servants. What does not help is the inclination one finds too often among EC staff to equate the EU with Europe, and the EC’s Research and Innovation efforts with European research and innovation in general. Finally, one should question whether it is a proper role for the EC to act as a sort of consultancy. Let us have a closer look at these issues.

Concentrating DG RTD’s personnel more on policy issues, and leaving the implementation to the Research Executive Agency, or to the European Research Council (ERC), is more than sensible. Probably all Member States have gone this way a long time ago. But one should read behind the lines. Even while Horizon Europe, the new Framework Programme for 2021-2027, tries to be less prescriptive than e.g. Horizon 2020, it is still the case, very much at odds with the way national governments act.  DG RTD determines in great detail the content and goals of the various components of Horizon Europe (with the exception of the ERC and perhaps the European Innovation Council (EIC)). And the ERC still is not independent in the way the national funding agencies of Member States or the United States are. So DG RTD might consider tackling these issues first, before assuming new tasks, such as assisting in reforming national STI systems.

What does it take to build up an effective and efficient national STI system? And does DG RTD staff have the requisite experience and expertise to assist national governments? This is obviously the most important issue. Much work has been done over the past 60 years or so (beginning with the OECD and UNESCO) on STI policies for governments, i.e. nations. One culmination has been the concept of National Systems of Innovation. I have found it useful to focus on four pillars when discussing national STI policies.

  • Governance, policy and legal framework for STI
  • Performing research and development: institutions and operating conditions
  • Funding research and development, and supporting innovation: institutions and instruments
  • Information and Communication and Data Infrastructure as crucial enabling infrastructure.

My argument is that the EC does not have much experience and expertise with any of these issues with the exception of the last one.

The first pillar has to do with cabinet-level responsibility, coordination between ministers, having a special coordinating or executive minister, having a generic law on STI systems, creating an Innovation Council, and so on.

The second pillar is firstly about what sort of institutions there should be. All countries have universities, but make different choices when it comes to applied research. Germany and the Netherlands opted for a very large central organization for applied research (the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in Germany, TNO in the Netherlands) apart from specialized laboratories in specific fields such as aerospace, whereas Denmark opted early in this century to integrate its applied research institutes with its universities, which moreover were to be merged into larger institutions, not without success. Countries’ practices also differ very much when it comes to PPP’s, public-private partnerships, and on how to organise research that relies on large research facilities. But importantly, the model countries follow is much less bureaucratic and imposes far fewer conditions as to which or how many partners to involve than the EC does in its PPPs. The other issue as regards performing research and innovation is how to create the right operating conditions for the universities and research institutions under one’s purview. That has to do with issues such as autonomy, personnel policy, strategy, funding, etc. The EC can hardly claim credit as a champion of autonomy or of any of these other issues. That is all logical given its remit, but it is not a qualification to now advise national governments on such things.

As to funding, one key issue is to find a balance between institutional funding (mostly from governments) and competitive funding (through a national funding agency). The EC only relies on competitive funding, with the exception of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), but the JRC is quite different, given its current roles, from universities or research institutions in Member States. Different governments strike a different balance, so what experience or knowledge could the EC advance? Of course, with competitive funding the EC faces similar challenges to those of national authorities.

What kind of financial support should be given to innovation? The EC seems to find it hard to swallow the realization that the conditions for companies to grow, and the availability of venture capital, are the real problems. Instead it keeps focusing on specific (and, of course, “disruptive”; there must be millions of those nowadays) innovations. In addition local or regional clusters are crucial but not very much within EC purviews. So what is the new European Innovation Council going to achieve? It will certainly motivate people, and support good ideas. But, can it assist in resolving structural problems?

There is no doubt that the EC has taken early on responsibility for the information, communication and data infrastructures. COSINE, the Eureka project of 19 countries and the EC to create the first pan-European computer network for research and higher education, in the second half of the 1980s, has resulted in the GÉANT network, of which the EC has always been a strong supporter.  In recent years we have seen the thorough plan for a European Research Cloud, but even here one sees that it is difficult for the EC to find the right balance between supporting STI systems through the best information, communication and data infrastructures on the one hand, and on the other hand industrial policies and interests. It happened in COSINE, and it seems to be happening again in GAIA-X, a still somewhat mysterious plan to create European autonomy or sovereignty, which is the new buzzword, in cloud and edge computing.

The dedication of EC civil servants is without doubt. But working in the Brussels bubble, as we now say, comes with biases. One that doesn’t need much comment is the inclination to equate the EU with Europe. While the EU is clearly the most powerful agent within Europe, it still isn’t Europe, though maybe Brexit helped us to realise that. We need the EU to take on a much stronger geopolitical role, but will have to recognize that Europe is a broader concept. Looking at the Council of Europe suffices to see the point and its importance.

Another bias is that within the EC, and more particularly DG RTD, a tendency exists to see the Framework Programme as the non plus ultra for European research and innovation. Two examples to illustrate the not very helpful overemphasising of the role of the Framework Programmes may shed light on this bias. Over the years EU politicians and civil servants have gone public by touting Horizon 2020, and now Horizon Europe, as the largest research programme worldwide. But what about the NIH in the US? It now has an annual budget of 40B$. Why is NIH not a programme while the Framework Programme with its very diverse components is? It cannot be the fact that the Framework Programme is decided in one go (that was the reason in the 1980s to move from a variety of research programmes to one overarching programme), because the NIH budget is also decided as a whole by the US Congress, be it annually. The second example is the often heard statement, not only by EC officials, but others drawn into the EC sphere, that 80 or 90% of international collaborations of scientists in the EU are funded by the EC. This is simply not true, but reflects the EC-inspired perspective that only collaborations in the context of government (including EU)-concluded programmes are genuine international collaboration. This not only ignores the European International Research Organisations’ work (thought these are, of course, the result of governmental cooperation, and the EC is not involved), but more importantly the fact that the biggest share of international research collaboration is between individual scientists who have their own sources of funding, whether this is institutional (their universities or research organisations paying for it) or through national funding schemes.

What can be said about the role of the EC acting as a consultancy?

First of all, of course, the EC is not and should not be a consultancy agency. It is an agreement between governments on the internal market, all sorts of regulations, political principles, values, etc. EC civil servants have to implement those agreements and remind, and if necessary sue, Member States if they do not follow the rules in those agreements. The key exception probably is the case of potential accession countries. They have to comply with a huge number of EU regulations, and EC officials and Commissioners have played and continue to play a crucial role in assisting accession countries to live up to the “Acquis Commun”, though the reality several years following accession shows the weaknesses in what the countries thought they had agreed upon.

In conclusion, the ambition to reform and improve Member States’ STI systems does not find much basis in the expertise and experience of the EC. There is a lot the EC should and can do, and the EU (and we are justified to say, Europe as a whole, not excluding the UK) will benefit. But this ambition is still one bridge too far at this moment.

by Peter Tindemans, Former Secretary General EuroScience

Disclaimer: views expressed on this article are the responsibility of the author and do not represent necessarily EuroScience and EuroScientist’s position.

[1] About the author’s credentials: he worked for a long time for the Netherlands government in STI policies, being responsible for most of the 1990s for all of research and science policy in the Netherlands. Since then, he has advised governments all over the world on STI policies, and has been highly involved in e.g. policies for large research infrastructures in Europe.

Peter Tindemans

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