by Giuliana Miglierini
The European socio-economic framework is undergoing a profound transformative moment, as a result of the new vision impressed by the von der Leyen Commission, with its goals in the field of the Digital and Green transitions. The subsequent crisis caused by the Covid pandemic and the following war at the boundaries of the European Union deeply impacted the already fragile economy, asking for new measures to sustain its competitiveness and ability to innovate.
A major goal of the Commission’s Agenda is to reposition the EU as a global leader in innovation. The European Council endorsed this vision at the beginning of December 2022, by adopting the Conclusions on the New European Innovation Agenda.
“The recent crises have shown the need for the EU to support an open strategic autonomy in order to curb the dependencies and vulnerabilities that affect our industry. We have to strengthen the EU’s own capacity in strategic areas. This will not be possible without ambitious investments in innovation”, said Vladimír Balaš, Czech Minister for Education, Youth and Sport, commenting the document.
The European Council also adopted its new Conclusions on research infrastructures (RIs), which complement and complete the framework to support innovation and set the basis for the full development of the European Research Area (ERA).
According to the European Commission, almost two thirds of the EU’s growth is driven by innovation. Despite this, the EU still positions behind other countries as for Gross domestic product expenditure on R&D activities (2.18%, vs 4.52% of South Korea, 3.28% of Japan and 2.82% of the US. Only China slightly follows at 2.14%). The same trend applies also to business enterprise investments in R&D (EU 1.45%, vs 3.63% of South Korea, 2.6% Japan, 2.05% of the US, and 1.66% of China).
The new Innovation Agenda
The Conclusions on the New European Innovation Agenda are the result of a work started in November 2021, when the Council’s Recommendation on a Pact for Research and Innovation (R&I) in Europe highlighted the importance of synergies with sectorial policies and industrial policy, as well as the coordination of R&I policies and programmes to support the development of breakthrough and incremental innovations across the Union. The New European Innovation Agenda was announced by the Commission in July 2022 and is intended to fully exploit the potential of deep tech innovations. In September 2022, the Czech Presidency of the Council started the drafting of the conclusions, and the final text adopted by the Competitiveness Council (Research) at its meeting of 2 December 2022.
All types of innovation play a critical role in driving EU’s competitiveness, states the document, with a particular emphasis on research-driven innovation, deemed able of shaping and creating new markets. Incremental and breakthrough innovation are both essential to maximise the societal and economic value of the resulting outcomes. Investing in higher education and R&I is thus essential to achieve these goals, and to position the EU as a global R&I leader. Social sciences and humanities should also be part of the comprehensive approach to innovation described by the Conclusions.
The diversification of supplies and the mitigation measures to tackle strategic dependencies on external suppliers are critical issues to be faced to compete in the complex global geopolitical scenario. An open approach to international R&I cooperation is still the goal of the European institutions, requiring shared fundamental values and principles with other countries and a balanced and reciprocal approach.
At the regulatory level, flexibility, fit-for-purpose, forward-looking and innovation-friendly remain the preferred keywords to characterise the new framework. The development of breakthrough, deep-tech and disruptive innovations should be supported by standardisation and accreditation, and regulatory adaptation and experimentation.
The Council also supports the role of private R&I investments and strategic use of intellectual assets as a fundamental part of the undergoing transition, as well as further policy reforms at Union, national and regional levels to better encourage the full development and implementation of new technologies, including testing and demonstration facilities.
The European Innovation Council (EIC) Fund has been confirmed as the tool to support investments in innovation. Among others, the Conclusions ask the Commission to implement the EIC’s Scale Up 100 action and to facilitate access to capital for innovative start-ups and SMEs through the InvestEU Programme.
Conclusions on Research Infrastructures
The second document approved in December 2022 updates the vision of the European RI ecosystem, with a particular focus on the system of integrated research infrastructures. Access to RIs is deemed fundamental to support innovation by private, large and medium-small companies. It can take different forms, i.e. proprietary access to RIs, contractual research, joint R&I, training and industrial, supply of top-class products and services to RIs. Research infrastructures are also important to sustain regional development and support the availability of a wide range of skills and relating jobs.
A central part of document is represented by the call to proceed with the implementation of the ERA Policy Agenda for the period 2022–2024 and, in particular, ERA Action 8 (“Strengthen sustainability, accessibility and resilience of RIs in the ERA”). To this instance, a major activity should aim to involve RIs in producing, collecting, processing, storing and providing quality certified scientific data in accordance with the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) principles. This action is considered essential to facilitate the sharing and use of data across a broad range of disciplines as well as at the international level.
To improve the RIs’ framework, the invitation of the Council is for the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) to run a comparative study aimed to identify best practices and elaborate recommendations to national and regional RI stakeholders by the end of 2023. A common approach for the staff of the RIs, especially in the case of a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), is also envisaged.
Research infrastructures can’t operate without the support of Technology Infrastructures (TIs); a mapping exercises of the last ones is considered essential in order to proceed with the implementation of the TI concept within the ERA Policy Agenda. Members states and the Commission should also work to better identify the role of RIs in the implementation of Horizon Europe (i.e. European Partnerships and Missions, industrial technology roadmaps, etc.). RIs may also contribute to designing new services based on their different missions and should be supported by long-term investments by member states with the support of the Commission. To this instance, the analysis of possible types of financial support throughout RIs’ life cycle, with identification of good practices and synergies of various funding resources, should be accomplished by ESFRI.
The Council also invited the Commission to present an initiative on a revised European Charter for Access to Research Infrastructures by the end of 2023. A better coordination between ESFRI and the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) Steering Board would also be needed.