Brussels, 06 Apr 2004
EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin refused to either condone or reject a proposal by German MEP Rolf Linkohr on the need for a European Innovation Area when speaking in Brussels on 5 April.
An innovation area or council would focus on improving the innovation capacity of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), according to Dr Linkohr, and would form one of the three pillars of European research, along with the Framework Programmes and a European Research Council.
Speaking at a discussion forum organised by Germany's Stuttgart region and moderated by Dr Linkohr, Mr Busquin acknowledged that he was being provocative, but said that his response to the proposal has to be 'yes and no'. He gave four principal reasons for his reluctance to give the initiative his absolute support.
First, 'to increase innovation we need a solid research base. There is no innovation without research,' said the Commissioner. Second, 'Innovation is the responsibility of enterprise and is difficult to fund with public money.' His third reason was that of wanting to avoid duplication, and Mr Busquin's final explanation for his position was not wanting to distract national policy makers from the current priority of increasing research investment: 'Research is on the political agenda and we need to keep the momentum,' he said.
Instead, Mr Busquin put forward a number of other suggestions aimed at boosting innovation in Europe. The Structural Funds are a useful tool, he said. And while not all regions can benefit from this funding - it being aimed at regions with a lower than average per capita income - more developed regions such as Stuttgart can benefit from the Structural Funds through the increased opportunities for networking with innovative regions that the funding creates, said the Commissioner.
Mr Busquin also gave his backing to the idea of an SME helpdesk, which he said 'goes in the same direction' as Dr Linkohr's innovation area proposal, and emphasised the value he sees in using fiscal measures to encourage innovation. Tax incentives can be used to make it easier and more profitable for private companies to invest in research and innovation, but must be introduced at national level and should be coherent across the EU, said the Commissioner.
Finally, Mr Busquin called for closer links with the European Investment Bank (EIB) for the purpose of funding innovation, and said that he expects more money to become available from the bank by 2010.
The EIB and the EIF (European Investment Fund) were also referred to by Isi Saragossi, head of the Research DG's directorate on 'investment in research and links with other priorities'. He announced that the EIF has recently embarked on a survey aimed at determining whether it would be worthwhile to launch a scheme to encourage networking between universities.
Networking was central to discussions at the forum. Heinz Zourek, Deputy Director General of the Commission's Enterprise DG, outlined the initiatives that his DG has implemented to encourage collaboration between regions, such as the Innovation Relay Centres (IRCs), the Innovating Regions in Europe (IREs) and PAXIS, the Pilot Action of Excellence on Innovative Start-ups. 'All will continue,' said Mr Zourek, 'but they all depend on whether regions are interested in working together on a common project.'
Horst Soboll, Director of research policy at DaimlerChrysler and member of the EU research advisory board (EURAB) also highlighted the need for networking between SMEs and large companies. Such partnerships facilitate the utilisation of research results, claimed Dr Soboll. Ignoring the opportunities for networking between large and small firms would result in 'replacing fragmentation of Europe with other fragmentation with a programme for basic research, a programme for applied research and a programme for SMEs,' he added.
Dr Linkohr asked Mr Saragossi to comment on whether or not the EU should fund regional research and innovation networks that demonstrate excellence. After all, said Dr Linkohr, the competitiveness of the EU as a whole depends on the competitiveness of individual regions. Mr Saragossi admitted that this is a sensitive question, but insisted that there are other means available for funding such initiatives. Why should the Commission select one region for funding over another? he added.
Bernd Steinacher, Stuttgart's Regional Director, drew a direct link between regional autonomy and success in terms of research and innovation. Stuttgart is one of three German regions with a directly elected regional assembly, and all have experienced similar results, said Dr Steinacher. He put the success down to a firm and stable institutional framework.
Mr Zourek, meanwhile, underlined the 'clear correlation' between innovation and economic growth. 'Those regions that are performing well in innovation are growing faster than the others,' he said.
But increasing research and innovation is not solely about increasing competitiveness. Jan Dekker, President of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, summed up the reasons for focusing on these issues: 'Research in itself is not much use [...]. We want to stay as we are. If we don't do more, I believe we will lose the ability to maintain our current standard of living.'