In order to overcome the financial crisis, creativity in generating new growth and jobs will be key. The European Commission therefore launched the Innovation Union as one of the seven flagship initiatives in the framework of the EU Agenda 2020 three years ago. David Harmon, Member of the Cabinet of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Ben Dankbaar, Professor of Business Administration at Radboud University in Nijmegen and Gerhard Huemer, Director Research and Innovation at European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) discussed the progress of this initiative with Richard Tuffs, Director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN).
“The EU does not have the luxury to stand still”, Harmon stressed at the outset. “Without innovation, we will not only not create jobs, but we will not even be able to maintain existing ones”. The BRICS countries were not the only competitors any longer. Everyone was investing in innovation nowadays. Harmon presented Horizon 2020, the financial instrument to implement the Innovation Union, aiming to boost the EU’s position in research and science, to improve support for SMEs and to address major concerns such as climate change, sustainable transport and energy, food safety and security or demographic change. It also contains a new strategy on internationalization. Joint calls with third countries will be possible under this instrument. „There might be two German teams playing in Wembley, but not all players are German“, Harmon illustrated. But EU member states should put aside more money for Research and Development, he urged, 1.15% of the GDP was not enough. The private sector could not do it on its own, but needed support through research and development policy and public procurement.
Fear of competition should not be the most prominent argument for investment in innovation, Dankbaar pointed out. “There is no room for complacency, but there is room for self-confidence”, he said. “Europe is doing fine in competition.” Europe should stop comparing and should instead focus on itself. Its challenges were different from the ones other countries faced.
All three speakers agreed that not academic research, but SMEs were the source of most innovations. “Innovation is not a top-down process. Most of the times it starts with a problem in the business process that needs solving or a customer’s needs. In contrast, many results of academic research are never commercialized”, Huemer said. He regretted the delay caused by heated discussions in the Council on the allocation of the available means and expressed his fear that the SME instrument foreseen in Horizon 2020 might get watered down. He criticized that under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) researchers often had simply looked for business partners and then continued their research regardless of practical applicability. Dankbaar recognized that scientists were often trained to ignore societal consequences. To the contrary, they would complain that companies dictate the object of their research. But he also suggested Europe should not save companies who do badly due to their unwillingness to invest in innovation. “If companies do not invest in innovation, maybe we need different companies.”
SMEs being a motor of innovation, Huemer’s main concern was the limited available funding as well as the complexity of the application process. Furthermore, he criticized that too much money was given to the regions to foster innovation, where it would not be spent, because the regions had other priorities. Harmon agreed that the present application and reimbursement system was too bureaucratic and its simplification was essential to ensure the success of Horizon 2020. Therefore there would be one national contact point, he explained. He also was confident that the funds earmarked for innovation in regional programmes would increase the innovative potential of the EU.
Jan Marco Müller, analyst at the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), added that it was crucial society embrace innovation. Europeans tended to do risk assessment after risk assessment until companies moved elsewhere where the business environment was more favorable. He suggested companies communicate better and scientists engage more with citizens. Philippe De Backer MEP contributed to the discussion by highlighting that one must not forget about business innovation. Not all innovation was technological after all.
Current developments: SMEs at heart of Government and EU plans for growth and job creation