You want to be a powerful player in Europe? You should invest in this!

April 13, 2017, 3:00 pm  english version Hungarian version  
The only way for Europe to compete in the world is via increasing investment in science and innovation. Therefore, if a country aims to become a powerful player also on a European level, it needs to spend more on these, Robert-Jan Smits told Portfolio in an exclusive interview. The Director-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission expects the share of R&D expenditures in the EU budget to at least double from the current 7.8% after 2020. He thinks the Commissioner for Budget will help in this, as he is expected to overhaul the system of agricultural and structural funds. Smits said there is no Member State that would like to compensate for the Brits that are exiting the EU. On Monday, he also visited Central European University (CEU) where he experienced a lot of concern, and he does not comprehend why the higher education law was amended the way it was, targeting CEU that has been extremely successful at attracting EU funds researchers and students.

Portfolio: Hungary is quite successful in Horizon2020 "Teaming" research excellence programme, because there are two Hungarian projects among the 10 winners. What are the reasons behind the success and why is it important to fund such innovation centres from direct EU funds as well?

Robert-Jan Smits: Europe cannot compete with the rest of the world with our raw materials, because we don’t have enough oil and gas, we cannot compete with low wages as well, because our wages are expensive. Europe cannot, will not and don’t want to compete with our environment, because we want to protect the environment. So the only way for us is to compete with the rest of the world is to be smarter, and that means investing in science and innovation. That means in European, national and regional level.

The two Hungarian projects we inaugurated today is really good examples of investment into the excellence. These have been chosen after a fierce competition, these are the best of the best. These are the knowledge innovation centres, which will make a difference for the citizens of Hungary and for citizens of Europe. So these are good examples of investing in science, investing in future.

You mentioned that wages levels are generally higher in Europe but lower in Central and Eastern Europe. Hence the common problem in Horizon2020 projects of linking eligible costs directly to monthly wages, as a consequence of this administrative limit some projects cannot attract top researchers. How can the Commission help to solve this problem, or what could be the solution to this problem in Horizon2020?

Equalization is very important and there is a debate in Europe concerning Horizon2020 that the newer Member States, the so called EU13, are not finding their’ way in the Framework Programme as they think they should get. The first reason of this is that a lot of EU13 countries are not spending a lot of money at national level on science and innovation. If you not spend at national level a lot of money you will never become a strong European player. Germany is spending 3% of GDP on science and innovation, Scandinavian countries 4%. So there is a link between investment and how do you participate in Horizon2020 and how you participate in global level.

The second reason is very much related to this problem is that in a number of EU countries more reforms are needed. Money needs to be allocated on the basis of competitive calls. Recruitment of researchers should be based on merit. So reforms are very important as well at national level. Reforms are crucial to increase the participation of EU13 countries to Horizon2020.

You have also mentioned that EU13 countries have not been so successful in Horizon2020 so far, with only around 5% of the funding ending up there. In consideration of this and the approaching mid-term evaluation, how would you evaluate Horizon2020? Are there any plans to restructure the programme or come up with measures of assistance in the last three years of Horizon2020?

You said rightly that these EU13 countries get 4-5% of the Horizon2020 money, but if we look at the national investments in research and innovation, if we look at scientific output and at the number of researchers, this corresponds to the share of EU13 in Europe which is also around 4-5%. So there is a correlation between the contribution of EU13 in the knowledge production in Europe and the funding they get from the Horizon2020 programme. Of course room to improve the EU13 participation, and for this reason we have a part of Horizon 2020 which is dedicated to these countries, namely Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation, of which Teaming is part of.

Now, Horizon2020 is at the midterm, we currently perform the evaluation, we make stakeholder consultations, and the results we are getting shows that the people love the programme, they love the structure, they love the simplification, they very like the value of the calls, they love the quick time to grants. So people are extremely happy with the programme. Recent figures even show that 83% of the people could never do the project without our support. This shows the additionality of the programmes.

Of course we can improve further the programme. There is an initiative from the EU13, which is on the political agenda. There is also an issue about the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises how they participated in the programme. I would like to have many more international participants in the programme so more Russians, more Brazilians, more Chinese. So we have challenges but I think 99% of people are really happy with the programme.

There is one huge problem we have, we don’t have enough money and the success rate has gone down to 14% that is far too low. So we need more money because there is a lot of creativity and innovation in Europe, but we just don’t have enough money.

You said that people love the Horizon2020 programme, but there is not enough money. Corina Cretu, Commissioner for Regional Policy gave us a video message three weeks ago related to our big EU Fund conference in Budapest and she said that this year is very important, because the tough negotiations about the post 2020 period will start. What are your expectations regarding the post 2020 period, how can we imagine that?

We are facing a number of challenges during the next budget period. For example the Brexit, and with the UK steps out, there will be a 15-20% less budget. That’s obvious. The question is will other Member States compensate that, or not. I don’t think there is any country this moment willing to send more money to Brussels. We have to be quite realistic about this topic now. There is another big issue the border fencing and the security. There is an enormous pressure on Europe to do more on this area, to spend more money on these issues.

So this will get certainly an important part in the next budget, but my hope is we can get a much bigger share and size for innovation in the next EU budget. At the moment we have a 7.8% in the EU budget and we really hope we can grow this in the future to at least to 15-20%. So we can become a major policy compare to Agriculture spending and Structural Funds. These two policies are taking together around 75-80% of the whole EU budget.

So we really hope that in the next EU budget we can double our share up to 15-20%, so next to the share of Agriculture and Structural Funds. That is my hope and my dream and that’s what I will fight for, but at the end of the day, the politicians will decide about the exact shares of certain policy areas after a very difficult fight, during a very turbulent Europe which we are facing right now.

You said there is no country that would be willing to contribute more to the EU budget after 2020, just because Brexit. Günter Öttinger, Commissioner for Budget suggested two weeks ago, that half of the gap caused by Brexit should be compensated by the Member States with higher pay-in and the other half by cutting some programmes. What do you think about this topic as a whole?

If you could say just one Member State that would like to compensate for the Brits, I will give you a good bottle of wine. I think there will be not so many countries that would fit the gap with paying more and we have to be quite realistic about this scenario. To fill the gap via reforms of the EU budged? Absolutely. I mentioned the challenges we have to face during the next budget cycle, and to reach the goals I think Agricultural spending needs to be reviewed completely. I think we will see a much different EU budget in the future than we have today.

I think Mr. Öttinger is quite keen to look at the Agricultural expenditure, and will see what reforms can be done, and of course on the field of Structural and Investment Funds. Mr. Öttinger is a very strong supporter of science and innovation he comes from Baden-Württenberg which spends 5% of its GDP on science and innovation.

The whole success of Baden-Württenberg in Germany is via science and innovation so I think he is a big supporter of this and he will push a lot this policy area to grow even further in the next budget. Of course he has a very difficult task to make the proposal about the next budget.

Hungary’s R&D expenditures correspond to merely 1.4% of GDP but growing, and the Central European University is quite successful at drawing R&D Funds from FP7 and from Horizon2020, as well. What do you think about the new Hungarian Higher Education Act really spooked CEU and triggered international outcry from Nobel Laureates, politicians and leading academics? What is your take on this whole issue?

It will be discussed by the Commission tomorrow (on Wednesday - Editor) in Brussels. I cannot make a political statement here I can only repeat what Commissioner Moedas and Vice-President Timmermanns said. They are concerned about what was happening, they see and read what’s going on and fear that academic freedom might be in danger, which is not good for the academic world and for science but also for the democracy. So they have real concerns, but also there is a real concern in the academic world internationally.

There is an enormous amount of worries expressed, and people just don’t understand what is going on and why it is going, notably aimed at measures being taken against one of the most prestigious academic organizations you have which is extremely successful in attracting EU Funds researchers and students from all over 170 countries. So it’s hard to understand why this is happening. The Commission will discuss tomorrow the issue and will take a political decision on how to deal with this situation. People are very worried and I share this and I went yesterday to visit the scientists of the CEU and they are very concerned and they don’t understand why this is happening.

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