Framework and the Innovation Union: Notes and Reflections

Earlier this month I attended Research Europe’s Framework and the Innovation Union conference at the International Trade Union Auditorium in Brussels. This was an opportunity to catch up with the latest developments on the European Commission’s plans for research and innovation funding in the next Framework Programme, also known as the Common Strategic Framework (CSFRI).

The CSFRI Green Paper [PDF] proposes major changes to the structure of research and innovation funding within the EU, including simplification of funding mechanisms, increasing impact and easing the burdens and barriers to participation and collaboration. The call for responses to this Green Paper closed in late May, so this conference was well timed to explore some of the issues around CSFRI and to start a discussion about the structure of European research funding following the end of Framework Programme 7 in 2013.

What follows are some summarized notes I took at the session together with some of my own reflections and analysis (in blue). It’s a long post, so to make it easier I’ve tried to pick out the key points by highlighting them in bold. For those who just want the key points and don’t feel like delving into the detail, I’ve summarised them at the bottom.

If you’re interested in the strategic directions of future EU funding I would also recommend reading Research Europe’s own news publications, which are available via for subscribers. Furthermore UK Research Office regularly publishes European funding opportunities and news and you should subscribe to that, too.

Plenary 1: Policy Context – The Innovation Union

Robert-Jan Smits, Director General, DG Research and Innovation, European Commission:

  • Robert-Jan began with a warning not to expect the EU budget as a whole to grow substantially – this would be an “illusion”. Having said this, in response to the North African “crisis”, money will be needed to “restore their situation” and “help these countries get back on their feet again”.
  • However, he was rather more bullish around the prospects for research and innovation funding. This, he said, “must grow in line with Europe 2020 the EU’s strategy for smart, sustainable, inclusive growth. Such growth is “logical”. These keywords (smart, sustainable, inclusive) were ubiquitous throughout the day and appear to be at the core of CSFRI. Potential applicants should be familiar with this policy context and be ready to demonstrate how their project will contribute to the European goals of sustainable growth. It should be noted that other some other speakers (and members of the audience) did not share Robert-Jan’s optimism about the growth of the EU research budget.
  • Robert-Jan discussed “smart fiscal reform” in Germany, where spending on research has increased (by 54% compared to 2005). He counselled that countries should “cut where you need to cut”. Another example given was Sweden, which spends 4% of its GDP on research – well ahead of the UK’s 1.8%. In fact the EU average spend on R&D is 2% of GDP compared to the target of 3% set by the Lisbon Agenda.
  • In comparison, the US announced a target of 8% GDP on research spending. China and South Korea are also ramping up spending on research, and Robert-Jan suggested Asia may soon bypass Europe as the “most innovative continent”.
  • On the Innovation Union, Robert-Jan saw this as not just about “applied research”, but “creating the right conditions for innovation to flourish”. He emphasized the free flow of knowledge, particularly between university and industry as an important part of this agenda.
  • On barriers to innovation, he mentioned the exorbitant costs of filing patents. In the EU it’s 15 times more expensive than the US. Robert-Jan was also quick to point out that governments should look at innovation-focused policies on public procurement. On average 17% of GDP is spent on public procurement, and this could support investment in research if  not just the cheapest, but the most innovative provider was used to procure a service or product.
  • Robert-Jan then moved on to the likely structure of the CSFRI, which he suggested would have fewer funding instruments than previous Framework Programmes thus making it easier to apply for funding. He also stressed that the EC was doing everything possible to move towards a more “trust-based” approach for managing grants, with less checking of receipts etc. Depending on how this is worked out, it could be a major boost for the Framework Programme. Onerous project management requirements is one oft-cited reason for not applying to the EC for research funding. Simplifying the maze of documents and funding instruments would be another welcome step in the right direction – different rules for different instruments makes it more difficult to interest busy researchers in the schemes on offer.
  • Three pillars for the Innovation Union were set out:
  1. Science for Innovation: strengthen the ERC, Marie Curie and Research Infrastructures (Capacities).
  2. Grand Challenges: funding will be offered to address one or more of the EU’s grand challenges, some of which are: healthy ageing, food safety and security, energy efficiency, climate change. This is an important change: it means that there will be no more Environment, ICT, or Energy programmes for example. Everything will be structured around addressing grand challenges, according to Robert-Jan.
  3. Innovation for competitiveness: instruments for SMEs and industry. Robert-Jan was keen to place SMEs and larger companies together in the same funding instruments to allow them to work, but later speakers warned against taking funding away from SME-targeted schemes.
  • Drafting of the CSFRI gets underway over the summer and proposals will be put to European Parliament in November.

Theodore Papazoglou, European Research Council

  • Theodore spoke about why we still need frontier research and how the ERC brings out excellence. He started by emphasizing the difference between the EU and US in highly cited research publications (most of the top 10 are from US universities). Given the emphasis Robert-Jan put on the ERC in his presentation, Theodore didn’t have to convince him that it should be continued. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a relatively recent introduction to the family of EC funding instruments and at the time it was introduced had to be fought for.
  • Of the top 15 universities in the world (THE rankings) only 4 are from Europe. This must be addressed if the EU is to achieve the Europe 2020 vision for science and innovation.
  • Theodore outlined the ERC schemes and summarised them as: bottom-up, individual-driven and pan-European, funding the best individuals to do excellent research.
  • The “Valley of Death” between basic research and eventual commercialisation was discussed: it is often difficult to attract funding between these two stages in the research life cycle. This led to the launch of the ERC Proof Of Concept research fund to address this gap. This is only open to those who already hold an ERC Starting Investigator or Advanced Investigator grant.

Dr. Jan van den Biesen, Vice President Public R&D Programmes, Philips Research

  • Philips is now applying its technological expertise to address health and lifelong well-being.
  • Many of the global challenges Philips wish to address mirror the EC’s grand challenges. There is, in this case at least, no gap between public and private funding for research: “The point is these global challenges also represent business opportunities”. (It reminds me a bit of this cartoon.)
  • Jan encouraged the EC to invest more in the “knowledge-based economy,” rather than its “agricultural past”.
  • He agreed with Robert-Jan that research funding should shift from themes to grand challenges. It’s difficult to stress enough how much of a key theme grand challenges was throughout the day, along with the interdisciplinary large-scale research projects which are needed to address them.
  • Jan emphasized the importance of university partners to Philips’ research funding portfolio: 7 out of 10 of Philips top 10 partners are universities. This fits with his overarching emphasis on the concept of “open innovation“.
  • However, industry participation in Framework funding is down from 39% in FP4 to 25% in FP7. Jan argued that participation must be simplified if this figure is to be increased. The system of research grant monitoring is “paralysed by the fear of making a mistake”. He suggested a high-trust approach, similar to that used in the Netherlands for research funding.
  • Jan also complained that the healthcare market is a patchwork in Europe, particularly with regard to tendering process and privacy legislation for patient data. This, he said, inhibits innovation.
  • As might be expected from a private sector representative, Jan sounded a note of caution on the open access agenda. He suggested that the EC don’t force results to be openly accessible, as this destroys more value than it creates. Open publications should be promoted if researchers have a choice about whether to publish or not. One might reasonably question how this dovetails with his earlier emphasis on “open innovation”. In the Q&A following this talk, it was suggested that since science is often so complex, publications today merely “advertise” the science. There are huge issues around gaining access to data.

Plenary 2: Carving Up The Pie

Geoffrey Boulton, Regius Professor of Geography and Vice-Principal, University of Edinburgh

  • Geoff Boulton asked the question: what are universities for in the context of the Framework Programme? They are not research institutes per se, although some have been this as well as centres of entrepreneurialism and innovation. According to Prof. Boulton, Universities are also obviously teaching institutions but they principally seek to “forage in abstract domains of abstraction”, something which may not immediately be of benefit to state or private sectors. Some have been in existence far longer than many EU states themselves.
  • At times of economic stress “the long-game tends to evaporate and is easily and quickly replaced by short-term business/market priorities”. However, Geoff argued that it is people who drive technology-focused economic growth, and it is people which are the primary outputs of universities, not research results. The future is hidden from view, but universities “prepare people who will be the vital resource for that unknown future”. This is clearly singing from same hymn sheet as Robert-Jan Smits, who also emphasized the importance of both the Marie Curie (People) and ERC programmes in future EC research funding frameworks.
  • Prof. Boulton also stressed that it is “profoundly naive” to suppose that all of Europe’s dominant challenges can be addressed by natural science alone. We “need to draw on the full range of disciplines and resources available to them”.
  • He argued that EU added-value is brought primarily through the Marie Curie and ERC instruments, and encouraged the EC to strengthen these. In his view, future Framework Programmes need to: be concerned with funding excellence, simplify the process, and be high-trust and risk-tolerant.


  • EUROCHAMBRES is an association of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry from 45 countries. It represents 10 million businesses across Europe, all of whom are potential innovators: “lots of innovation takes place without any research”.
  • Simplification is vitally important for increasing SME involvement in Framework Programmes. Also turn around times need to be addressed: “businesses think on different timescales” and “lots of them need to apply for loans to cover costs before funding arrives”. Often bureaucracy and reporting requirements discourage SMEs from getting involved at all.
  • Ben argued that the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme should remain under the governance of DG Enterprise, rather than shifting to DG Research. Moreover, there should be a dedicated SME research pillar within CSFRI. This goes against what Jan van den Bisen from Philips had argued earlier, namely that funding for SMEs and large industry shouldn’t be separate.

Jerzy Langer, Foreign Secretary, Academia Europaea

  • Jerzy Langer certainly got everyone’s attention from the start: Business as usual “should be absolutely abandoned”, he claimed in the context of the current economic crisis. Members of the public “don’t have a clue about Framework Programme funding” – most would say “what the hell is this?” if you asked them about it.
  • Much of Langer’s talk focused on the split between the original EU 15 and the new EU 12: majority of FP funding is concentrated in the original EU 15 countries. Four countries (including UK) take 60% of the total funding.
  • There is no correlation between input and return, meaning money national governments put into FP and the money received by research organisations and industry in those countries. The UK does particularly well in terms of input: return.
  • The CSFRI budget could potentially be €147bn over 7 years (significant funds!) and Langer saw the main focus as addressing grand challenges, in common with other speakers throughout the day.
  • Excellence was another key focus of Academia Europaea’s response to the CSFRI Green Paper.
  • He also argued for a “European High Risk Innovation Council” which would be a “brother to the ERC”

During the Q&A for this session, it was highlighted that universities often sit on IP which they cannot exploit. IP should be used and made available for further exploitation in Europe. The point about the contribution of the humanities, arts and social sciences to addressing grand challenges was also reiterated.

Parallel Session: ICT

Dr Fabien Petitcolas, Director for Innovation, Microsoft Europe

  • Microsoft’s research lab in Cambridge is “more like a university than industry” in terms of research. Microsoft has collaborated in EC research funding since FP4.
  • FP has been worthwhile in encouraging collaboration, but the EC could go further in cutting red tape, argued Fabien and others from Microsoft.
  • Fabien cautioned the EC not to dictate the direction of research too much: curiousity-driven research is a “breeding ground” for strategic research.
  • The EC should invest in “simple instruments”, e.g conferences, networks, seminars to create a research context.
  • What makes Microsoft stay in Europe? Talent, i.e. people. Again this returns to the importance of the Marie Curie/People programme within EC research funding.
  • There was some discussion around why high quality bids, e.g. Marie Curie ITNs, were not funded. It was felt that national governments should step in and fund high quality, highly ranked EU research bids which were unsuccessful.
  • Panels for ERC should consist of people who can think in an applied way, e.g. people outside the discipline.

Plenary 3: Making Framework Work

Associate Professor Ladislav Balko, European Court of Auditors

  • The ECA acts as a “financial conscience” on behalf of the EU.
  • “Trust of citizens is even more important in times of austerity”, but this must be balanced with trust in academics.
  • Much of this talk focused on citing chapter and verse from EC articles and regulations about why auditing research grants was necessary and enshrined in EU law. However, Ladislav didn’t really tackle the issues raised by most of the other participants, namely how can Framework research be simplified to encourage greater participation from universities and business? This was disappointing given that most other delegates clearly saw the need for simplification. However, it is illuminating in that it suggests while some moves will be made towards simplification in CSFRI, I am not expecting a revolution in terms of audit and reporting requirements.

Dr Piotr Swiatek, Research Centre Juelich

  • There is very little analysis of all funding sources from the EC. All have a different typology and focus. It is difficult to see the coherence.
  • Piotr questioned whether we have to put all EC research/innovation funding into the new CSFRI.
  • Citing examples of world-changing innovation, such as the Fert-Grunberg hard disk revolution and Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web, Piotr argued that none of these were on strategic agendas – they were all side-effects. This calls for more investment in researcher-driven funding instruments such as the ERC.

Bruno Van Pottelsberghe, Professor of Technological Innovation, Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management

  • Bruno spoke about what drives innovation and whether governments can really steer it to meet their agenda.
  • The EU is flattening in terms of investment in R&D. China is the only country that actually meets the Lisbon agenda!
  • “You can’t ask academic researchers to innovate” – Fleming discovered penicillin, but it was commercialised by Pfizer in the US.
  • In addition to the “valley of death” of funding between basic research and commercialisation, another issue for Tech Transfer Offices is lack of a proof of concept. The ERC’s new fund will fill some of this gap (for ERC funded researchers), but perhaps what is needed is a new mechanism.


The key messages I pulled out from the day:

  • The next Framework Programme (CSFRI) will likely focus on large-scale interdisciplinary research projects to address European grand challenges, e.g. climate change, food safety and security, energy efficient transport, stimulating the knowledge economy etc. Collaborative research will focus largely on these issues and the thematic structure of previous FPs (e.g. Environment, ICT, Energy etc.) will likely go.
  • Potential applicants should be familiar with the EU policy context, and the focus on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth set out in the Europe 2020 vision.
  • There will be continued focus on funding excellence in research: ERC (Ideas) will be maintained and strengthened.
  • Alongside this, there will be a continued emphasis on enabling the best researchers to move freely around Europe, hence the Marie Curie (People) programme will be maintained and strengthened.
  • There will be efforts to simplify both the mechanisms and reporting requirements of CSFRI, but these will probably not go far enough to massively increase SME and industry involvement in EC funded research.
  • Despite this, funding for SME and industry involvement will be an important part of encouraging collaboration between the research and business worlds. One challenge for universities will be to develop partnerships with business in key sectors which can contribute to joint projects addressing the identified grand challenges.

I’d be happy to discuss any of this further and as always, the research office is available to discuss your ideas for European funded research at any time. Please contact us.

4 thoughts on “Framework and the Innovation Union: Notes and Reflections

  1. Ted Fuller

    This is very helpful David. Does a ‘definitive’ list of EU Grand Challenges exist? They seemed to start this notion in 2008 .. The whole approach chimes with the Big Teams and Big Themes discourse of RCUK.

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