The UK is not always renowned for its embracing of all things European. But in science and research, the UK has found an area where it definitely does get ‘bang for its buck’ via Brussels. Recently released figures from the European Research Council show that UK universities are incredibly successful at attracting researchers and grants, receiving nearly 20% of awards from the Council in 2010.

This success was one of the areas that the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science sought to highlight during her visit to London on Monday. On the first day of the week that has seen the  launch of the European Commission Green Paper on the future of research (‘From Challenges to Opportunities: Towards a Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and innovation funding’ was released yesterday), Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had a packed schedule. In between meetings with David Willetts, Sir John Beddington FRS, and a trip to UCL to meet researchers, the Commissioner delivered her first speech in the UK on research and innovation at the Royal Society. (A transcript of the speech is available here.)

Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn took up her post over a year ago, and oversees the Commission’s Framework Programme, now in its seventh incarnation (FP7), which will spend over €50 billion between 2007 and 2013. This is equal to approximately 5% of the funding available for European research through national budgets, and the UK is one of the programme’s most successful participants, receiving a quarter of the total funding going to Europe’s academic community under its predecessor, FP6.

Entitled ‘The UK and the EU: A win-win for science and innovation’, the Commissioner’s speech concentrated on the crucial role played by research and innovation in economic growth, as discussed in last year’s Royal Society report, ‘The Scientific Century’. As the Commissioner pointed out, Germany’s economic success results from a deliberate policy of consistent investment in research, which the EU is hoping to achieve on a pan-European scale through its ambitious target of investing 3% of GDP in research and development by 2025, which if met, could create nearly 4 million jobs in Europe and increase annual GDP by €700 billion in that time.

She also outlined one of the key proposals in the Commission’s ‘Innovation Union’ initiative. The European Innovation Partnerships were announced as “our answer to Europe’s Sputnik moment”, referring to Obama’s call last week for the US to avoid another Sputnik moment this century. (Check out Michael Ashcroft’s post on Obama’s speech for this blog.)   will be launched in areas where “a clear and verifiable goal can be set in tackling a societal challenge”. The first of these, a pilot partnership on active and healthy ageing, was approved by the European Council last week, and attempts to address one of Europe’s most pressing challenges by bringing together the continent’s researchers, private companies, and other actors to “add an average of two healthy and active years to the lives of people in Europe”.

One of the most frequent criticisms of the FP to date has been the cumbersome bureaucracy involved, and a number of appraisals have called for greater simplification. Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn’s words on this were encouraging, calling for “cutting red-tape, so that scientists can spend more time in the lab, and innovators can spend time innovating, instead of form-filling.”

Europe faces a number of pressing socio-economic and environmental challenges, and the Commissioner acknowledged that research and innovation will play a critical role in identifying potential solutions. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and her fellow Commissioners, along with the eagerly anticipated appointment of the European Chief Scientific Adviser, face the challenge of both supporting excellent research in Europe, and applying the fruits of that research to broader policy issues. In her first year, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science has been a vocal proponent of innovation as a driver of Europe’s future prosperity. The year ahead should prove whether her vision can be translated into a framework for European research.

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