EU to adopt fast-track model for research and innovation funding

As it prepares to launch €418 million of new calls, the Commission says the bureaucracy-lite public-private projects set up in the economic emergency will be a model for research funding in the future

Image: EC

The €3.2 billion public-private partnerships (PPPs) programme set up at speed in response to the financial crisis, is to be the new model for research and innovation funding, the European Commission has announced.

A third - €418 million - call under the partnerships programme is due to be launched later this month. Industry has applauded the PPPs, and in particular the flexibility, lack of bureaucracy and fast and efficient approach. “Even though the PPPs were set up in an emergency, it turned out to be a model with excellent efficiency and speed,” Wolfgang Steiger of the German car manufacturer Volkswagen, said at a conference on the partnerships in Brussels this week.

Setting up the research partnerships – in Green Cars, Energy-efficient Buildings and Factories of the Future – was a key economic stimulus measure. The initial thinking was once the crisis passed, they would come to an end, noted Herbert von Bose of the Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation, and chair of the conference.

But now the partnerships are to be extended to other industries and will be included in Horizon 2020 when it succeeds Framework Programme 7 in 2014. “The PPPs are here to stay,” said von Bose.

This is despite the fact that an interim assessment of the partnerships found there are, “Some uncertainties and insufficient transparency” in the way the PPPs are organised, the conference heard. While the informality of the partnerships’ governance and their reliance at times on the goodwill of the partners may have allowed things to move quickly, this is not considered optimal in the long-term, and the partnership should be formalised and the roles of the partners defined, said the assessment, published in May.

Tweaking bureaucracy

The scale of the economic collapse in late 2008 forced the Commission to act quickly, ditching the complex structures that encumbered the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs), which were the first attempt to set up public-private research partnerships at a European level. But despite having come under huge criticism for their complexity, the JTIs will also form part of Horizon 2020. They may however, be tweaked to make them less burdensome.

Just as the aim for the JTIs will be to lose some of their rigidity, the PPPs will become more structured. As von Bose said, “The truce will be somewhere in the middle.”

Research Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, told delegates that collaborative research must be “the backbone” of Horizon 2020. A list of criteria for future PPPs is being developed for inclusion in the legislative proposal for Horizon 2020 this autumn, she said.

Criteria will include the added value of acting at an EU level; the impact on industrial competitiveness, sustainable growth and/or socio-economic issues; the long-term commitment from all parties based on a shared vision and clearly defined objectives; the scale of resources involved and the ability to leverage additional investments in research and innovation; clearly defined roles for the public and private partners; and agreed performance indicators.

The legislative proposal is unlikely to identify specific industries for future PPPs, but among the sectors that have reportedly been knocking on the Commission’s door to show their interest are chemicals, steel, pulp and paper, and food.

The aim of the partnerships is the rapid translation of research results into marketed products. As von Bose put it, “People, Planet, Profit.”  The partnerships have to create jobs, have a positive environmental effect and make money for industry. A technological roadmap and a business roadmap are required, he said. “Beautiful knowledge is not enough. We want to know the impact.”

Lack of monitoring

One concern raised by several delegates was the lack of monitoring. “PPPs have the intent to get products and services into the market within two to five years,” said Geoff Pegman of RU Robots Ltd, who is involved in the Factories of the Future partnership. “One thing we’re not doing is checking if that’s happening. We have to if we’re going to pursue PPPs long-term,” Pegman added.

To date, there has been much higher industry participation in the PPPs than in other FP7 programmes. To ensure this continues, delegates from the private sector said it is essential to remain lean, fast and efficient, and if anything hone this further.

“The procedures for administration and management of the research PPPs should be further streamlined and should allow for appropriate flexibility in the execution of the programmes and projects,” says the interim assessment, which was drawn up by experts including several from industry. “The bureaucracy associated with JTIs” should be avoided, the report went on to say.

The PPPs have already had two coordinated calls, one in 2009 and another a year later. A third will be launched this month, most probably on 19 July. The deadline for applications will be in December, with the aim that projects start in June next year.

The funding for Factories of the Future in this call will be €160 million for topics within the Nanotechnologies, Materials and Production Technologies (NMP) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) themes. For Energy-efficient buildings, the total will be €140 million for topics within the NMP, environment, energy and ICT themes. The Green Cars budget will be €118 million, with two topics within a joint call for NMP, environment and transport, as well as other topics within transport and ICT.

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Related subjects: European Commission, framework, Horizon

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