Next year, the European Union will spend 6.4 billion euros to fund research and innovation projects — a sum that the Irish EU Commissioner for Research Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn deems to be indispensable if we are to safeguard the future of Europe. As she explains in her own words, “Investment in research and innovation is the only smart and lasting way out of crisis.” The funds in question will be sourced from the Seventh EU Framework Programe for R&D, which will administer a total of 50 billion euros in funding for the 2007-2013 period. Professor Alfred Kleinknecht, who specialises in the economics of innovation at the Delft University of Technology, monitors what becomes of this money and how it is spent.
Trouw: The budget of 6.4 billion has been billed as the European Union’s biggest ever investment in research and innovation. At first glance, it seems like an vast figure, but what does it mean in real terms?
Alfred Kleinknecht: It looks like a lot of money, but in reality it is not as extraordinary as it seems. You have to bear in mind that it is for all of the EU’s 27 member states, and once it has been divided up it will appear much less impressive.
Do you agree with the Commissioner’s assertion that it is a measure to combat the crisis?
No. In the short term, this budget will have no impact on the economy. The projects that are to be funded with this money will first have to be launched. Then we will have to wait 5-15 years to see if anything comes of them. It is a long-term investment.
Do you think that this financial support will increase the overall number of innovation projects?
There are advantages and disadvantages to this type of programme. For example, the money provided is not easily accessible. Researchers are forced to spend weeks preparing funding applications which have to comply with a number of protocols. The level of bureaucracy has reached a point where it is difficult to manage without a dedicated member of staff. Everything has been locked down to prevent fraud. The EU had to make a choice between an onerous requirement for paperwork or the possibility that funds could be put to fraudulent use. So it insists on a large amount of paperwork, which is the lesser of two evils. But personally, that is why I would never apply to carry out this type of project.
So if you don’t apply, who does?
When you look at the evaluations, you can see that the programme mainly attracts applications from the European elite of R&D companies and institutions. And this is also confirmed by the selection procedure, which eliminates around half of the projects. Those that remain usually involve major players like Philips, which has a special department for this type of paperwork. The positive news is that the system has proved to be effective in singling out high-level ambitious projects, which would probably not see the light of day if this source of funding was not available.
Within the framework of the programme, the EU is to some extent setting an agenda for sectors like information and communications technology (ICT). Do you see that as a positive development?
Brussels broadly defines the sectors for research to be funded by the programme: for example, the nanotechnology sector, which is very much in vogue at the moment. In response, researchers tend to include these types of technologies in their projects, and overnight you have a situation where every project seems to have a nano-component. So I think it is important to evaluate the impact of the influence exerted by Brussels. At the same time, the influence of funding sources can be positive. In the United States, the boom in the ICT sector was launched by investment from public authorities. Without this type of funding, Microsoft and Intel would never have been able to grow so quickly.