Potocnik talks through his 'uncluttered' approach to EU research policy

September 29, 2006

Brussels, 28 Sep 2006

'I like people with a free mind, it's true,' said European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik in an interview with CORDIS News. He was referring to Bob Marley - he is often believed to be a fan because of the beautifully painted portrait of the late Jamaican singer on his wall. In fact, the picture was a gift from his son - the artist, and a true Marley fan. But Commissioner Potocnik's admiration for free and uncluttered thinking runs through his approach to the Framework Programme, which it is his job to administer. The upcoming Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will last longer and have substantially more budget than ever before. FP7 will also have an important role in setting the European research and innovation agenda. But he is realistic about the challenges ahead. 'If I look now, maybe the major reality check is that everything is interconnected and complex, and there are no quick fixes,' he says.

Born in the former Yugoslavia in 1958, he served as Assistant Director and then Director of the Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development in Ljubljana, gaining a PhD in economics along the way, and simultaneously becoming Senior Researcher at the Institute for Economic Research in Ljubljana. Slovenia became an independent nation in 1991, and he slid into politics. He negotiated Slovenia's accession to the EU and was appointed Minister Councillor at the Slovenian Prime Minister's Cabinet between 2001 and 2002, and Minister for European Affairs from 2002 until 2004. He is now his country's Commissioner, having taken up the post in 2004.

He is only too aware of the importance attached to research and the Framework Programme - research has rapidly climbed the agenda in recent years - but he is eager to set it to work. FP7's progress through the parliamentary procedure is now almost complete, after almost two years, and this 'is the first step needed; now the reality has to follow closely,' he says..

The Commissioner says that he wants FP7 to touch people's lives 'directly'. But how?

'The idea is to make things different and better. But if there could be a broad vision of Framework Programme, it could be done by saying 'this is public money'. Public money should follow the major challenges and the major market failures. Who would do the research for example in fusion if we did not? In all respects, it is very much interconnected with people's lives and their quality. Some more directly, some more implicitly. But there is nothing I think that would be out of that story.'

One way of achieving this is to simplify - to make FP7 more accessible. 'When I saw the structure of FP6, it was not so easily understood. The first decision we wanted to make was 'let's make the programme so simple that even the commissioner can explain it',' he says with a smile.

Another area significantly boosted under FP7 is business involvement. Some businesses, including small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) had felt a little sidelined under FP6. FP7 needed to increase business presence, to ensure solid exploitation of results. '...we have heard in the past complaints coming from the business sector that we are not listening to them enough. So I think you will find much more attention to business in FP7. We have the technology platforms, which are a remarkable new movement, because for the first time we have, on the European Union level, a business initiative with Member States, regulators, financial institutions together, discussing their vision, discussing their research agendas. This is a huge base which is helping us in directing our efforts. And that is satisfying. The business community today is very much satisfied with our approach.'

But this is not at the expense of frontier research, with FP7 also creating the new European Research Council (ERC). 'For the first time we have the possibility that we have a 'Champions League' of researchers on the EU-level [...]. This might help us also in the future in developing the European research agenda.'

For researchers, simplification of FP7 was essential, and significant efforts have been made. 'When you see how much it takes to get a contract, and you see how much reporting there is, you try to really push in the opposite direction. This is not only my political message but I try to make it as much a reality as possible, and all our efforts are going in this direction. At the end of the mandate there will only be two possible statements: either we have made a simplification or simplification is simply fiction.'

But FP7 has not had a completely smooth ride. The European Research Council (ERC) was deemed by the European Parliament to need a review after only a year. The Commissioner thought it needed longer, but found the reasoning behind the disagreement - a wish to discuss the ERC within both the mandate of this European Parliament and himself - 'quite reasonable'.

Lobbyists have also been disappointed by the continued absence of ring-fencing for areas such as renewable energy or disability research. Here the Commissioner hits his stride by outlining what money is really needed for - creativity. 'We have programmes in the budget which are clearly for cohesion, which are clearly also for other tasks, but predominantly the orientation in what we are doing and our mission is supporting creativity to support excellence in the European Union, support cooperation and do the best with the resources which we have.

'Ring-fencing would not very much help in this approach. But that does not mean that we are not supporting, for example, renewables. Of course renewables are a part. They need attention because in this world where energy is scarce, we need to search for all the potential solutions, and renewables is one of the most challenging and effective which we have seen. It is environmentally friendly and it is something which is close to my heart,' he says.

As described above, FP7 is seen as a crucial part of the ongoing drive for innovation in Europe. Commissioner Potocnik has been vocal in his support for Esko Aho's expert group report into innovation for Europe, which gives a clear economic argument and blueprint for investing in research to stimulate innovation.

'You need a critical mass of messages coming so that they become reality. Esko Aho is not alone in this kind of idea. We have thought about that before and it is also in the recent paper on innovation. But you need that kind of serious politician, and he has done the job in reality - he changed the situation in Finland. He has good credibility for saying that and it helps. Also, other politicians are listening carefully, and this is a loud and clear message to everybody. And we need loud and clear messages.. One of his ideas is lead markets, which of course is not just picking winners, and I believe is perfectly in line with a market economy logic,' he says.

The Commissioner cites the example of GSM - the mobile standard developed and exploited to great effect in Europe and now the international mobile standard. 'This gave us, and for example Nokia and the others, a lot of advantage and opportunity to use that. We are taking about such examples,' he said.

If other European standards can be developed, then Europe will have a clear advantage in these areas. 'You have to see that as a way to try to breach some of the open debates in [...]. If you agree on how the things would look and what would be the standard for that, it would be much easier then for the industry to really embark, and to power all their development into that,' he says.

Another route for innovation is the European Institute of Technology (EIT), which is more controversial. Academics and think tanks have come out either firmly in favour or against, leaving no consensus. Is it a good idea? 'Without any doubt I hope that it will happen,' he says.

The role of the EIT is quite specific, he says. 'The problem is the interconnection of the three angles of knowledge - education, R&D [research and development] and innovation - is not functioning well in Europe [...]. And creation of the EIT is basically to overcome that or help overcome that kind of a problem. So we should not put it in the same basket as the ERC - it is a totally different story. The ERC is and should be the knowledge provider.'

The Commissioner was also eager to eliminate some misconceptions. One is that Technology Platforms are in some way testing grounds for projects to move 'up' to Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs). There will be a limited number of JTIs, so won't some sectors feel disappointed not to make the leap?

'It is more the root of the name than the substance,' he says. He also refutes the idea of Technology Platform projects finding disappointment, 'because they are far further and actually their potential is much higher than we even imagined when we took the initiative to develop them. They have truly proved that they have a huge potential in the context of the lead markets and in the context of the European Technology Institute, in the context of all these debates which have actually not a lot to do with research itself - they go beyond research so if they understand how important and serious the work that they are doing is and what is their potential, that disappointment will disappear, definitely.'

Another misconception is that the European Research Area (ERA) will be relaunched. 'It will not be relaunched, 'relaunched' is the wrong word,' he says. The Commissioner feels that after FP7 sets sail, and the political process is over, then he will concentrate on developing the ERA. 'The attention to research and the awareness of the importance is now much higher than it was, and we have this energy and we want to use it. Because it is important that we keep the topic hot. It is also important that we debate the future directions of Europe , with a clear mind as to what we want to do. So that is exactly what we would like to do during 2007.'

The Commissioner wants Member States to open up their national funding to ERA projects. 'We need to have a clear political commitment, and there are questions which are connected with improving the mobility and coordination of that, and manage clearly what we have done already in FP7. Already we introduced co-financing, so we are ready to co-finance if the Member States accept.'

The ERA idea is more than just research, however. It could be a tool to spread the idea of union itself. 'Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. We've participated in research since FP4, since 1994. That is a fact. So the reality is that even today in a way membership in R&D is a precursor. Research is normally breaking down walls before the political things are following,' he says. 'Frankly if we are serious and we are on potential enlargement towards the western Balkans and Turkey, then I think it is time to help them and make them associated members as soon as possible, so they simply start to cooperate better than they have done in the past. I am very determined to go in this direction, to give them the conditions that would be attractive enough so they would seriously think to become associated members and on the other hand to connect between the things they would be doing at home and the way we would treat them in the FP.'

While the spread of the ERA could have an important impact on the future of European research by increasing cooperation, another project, the fusion energy research project ITER, may be his legacy. Based in Cadarache, France, 'one of the things I of course will never forget is ITER, which is historic, and more important than we are seeing at this very moment. This will be a successful project. Of course it is a long-term, geopolitical reality.'

Once running, fusion power could be the answer to many of the problems not just in Europe, but planet-wide, such as the burning of fossil fuels. In the meantime, FP7 aims to stimulate research in those areas that really need it, from SMEs to areas of cutting-edge research to strengthening the European Research Area, to finding alternatives until fusion power does become a reality. If Europe emerges a stronger force thanks to this push for innovation, then so be it.

For further information, go to Commissioner Potocnik's website at:
http://ec.europa.eu/commission_barroso/potocnik/indexfl_en.htm

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