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The EU's Seventh Framework (FP7), now one year into its seven-year life span, is a 'kind of transition programme', taking Europe's research community in the direction of the new instruments that were introduced last year, said EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik in an interview with CORDIS News.
Many of the new instruments have externalised management of research projects, putting the responsibility for managing chunks of the FP7 budget firmly in the hands of bodies external to the European Commission. When it comes to the next framework programme, FP8, the Commissioner would like to see further steps in this direction.
The European Research Council (ERC), new in 2007, funds 'frontier' research, with excellence the sole criterion for funding. 'The ERC is the major revolution in FP7. It will truly mark the ERA [European Research Area] in the future. I will sign a statement on that any time you ask,' said Mr Potocnik.
The first ERC call for proposals was a huge success. It could be described as too successful in fact, as the call was hugely oversubscribed. The success of the first call was extremely important and sent out a 'serious message' about the future of the ERC, believes the Commissioner.
Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) have been another major innovation. These 'private-public partnerships', referred to in this way by the Commissioner to emphasise that the initiative is coming from the private sector, tackle some of the major challenges facing Europe, as well as domains with huge potential for the future: fuel cells and hydrogen technology; nanoelectronics; environmentally friendly air transport; embedded computing and innovative medicines. It is early days for these long-term initiatives, but the Commissioner reports that feedback from business leaders has already been very positive. 'Is the instrument hitting one of the deficiencies of the ERA? The answer today is already yes,' he says.
'When you defend these proposals, to be completely honest, you don't know how revolutionary they are. When you see them in action, you really see what you have done,' said Mr Potocnik.
Both of these instruments, along with Article 169, which allows the Community to participate in programmes undertaken by several EU Member States, have deferred management responsibility from the Commission's Research Directorate General to external agencies or undertakings. 'They are creating hubs under the umbrella of the Framework Programme. I think that this is the right way to go - increasing the need and the reasons for the money, and at the same time decreasing the seriousness of questions on whether we can manage this [money] efficiently,' says the Commissioner.
His aim is that this will free up the staff at DG Research to take a 'more ministerial type approach'. Although the funding for research projects will double in nominal terms between 2007 and 2013, it has already been decided that the number of people managing the programme within DG Research will remain constant.
Meanwhile the management will be done 'by specialists, in a more linear and faster way. This direction is logical and correct,' believes Mr Potocnik.
On the budget for FP8, the Commissioner will only say that it should be larger than it is currently. Taking just one part of the current framework programme, the ERC, he says: 'If the ERC functions well, give me one good reason not to double the budget.'
The mix of new instruments and the trusted cooperative research projects seem to have been a hit among researchers. 'People tell me that nobody is complaining,' laughs the Commissioner. He does however see room for improvement. The launch was just the first step, and one should expect constant movement from now on, he says.
One area for improvement is the participation by the new EU Member States in FP7. When researchers from these countries do apply for funding, their success rate is as high as or higher than that of researchers in the older Member States. But the problem lies in the number of applications coming from the new Member States, and this can be traced back to a lack of networks and connections. The National Contact Points in these countries must look outwards and to each other, and not only inwards, says the Commissioner. And at the same time, the Commission needs to strengthen its awareness campaign in the new Member States.
Participation by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - another area of concern in the past - seems to have been addressed in FP7. Despite the Commissioner's wishes to the contrary, a participation target of 15% was set for SMEs (Mr Potocnik does not believe in targets, believing that incentives are the way to encourage changes). Initial figures show that participation has exceeded expectations and hit 20%, although the Commission will need to check that all companies that have described themselves as SMEs do indeed match the recognised definition before these figures can be confirmed. The introduction of a Guarantee Fund and efforts to simplify the programme are likely to have made the difference.
'When you work on a framework programme, you can repeat the word 'simplify' 10 times every day, but you can't see if the programme really will be simplified until you see it in action,' says the Commissioner. 'The system is so complex. You introduce things and they have positive and negative impacts. You have to weigh these effects up against each other. It's not black and white.'
Perhaps Mr Potocnik's biggest success is raising awareness of the importance of research. Being a modest man, he is reluctant to use the word 'success' himself to describe the achievement, but there is now a wide recognition across policy areas of the importance of research. He describes this as having put research 'in the broader context'. 'It makes changes possible that would be practically impossible otherwise,' he says, giving as examples the steps needed to fully implement a European Research Area.
This broad recognition of the importance of research extends to the College of Commissioners, Mr Potocnik says. A lot of EU-wide targets have been set recently, particularly in the energy and environment fields. All are based solidly on science, he says. Recent media reports have criticised the EU's biofuels targets, saying that they will have a negative impact on the environment, as well as food prices and the availability of water.
The Commission's energy proposals published on 23 January are a revision of previous proposals, showing that the Commission has taken account of new research into biofuels. This is not to say that biofuels have no future. They have potential, the Commissioner says clearly, and third generation biofuels are already in the scientific pipeline.
'There will be new realities and new information every day. What is important is that we have an approach that binds us to review our strategy,' he adds.
One year on from the launch of FP7, a review of progress and results so far can only be positive, suggesting that no strategy change is needed here at this point.
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The Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) bundles all research-related EU initiatives together under a common roof playing a crucial role in reaching the goals of growth, competitiveness and employment; along with a new Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP), Education and Training programmes, and Structural and Cohesion Funds for regional convergence and competitiveness. It is also a key pillar for the European Research Area (ERA).
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