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Basic research as a driver of our economic future
By: Fabien Petitcolas, Director for Innovation, Europe
08 February 2012

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The first Innovation Convention and the publication of Horizon 2020 – the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation – last December were an essential part of the Innovation Union flagship initiative, as well as an important milestone in the development of the Europe 2020 strategy. The Innovation Convention brought new energy to the discussion of how Europe can become even more competitive on the global stage. Research and innovation are critical to the development of industry in the European Union and for Europe’s competitiveness.

Microsoft welcomes the European Commission’s proposal of a new programme for research and innovation addressing major societal challenges in the European Research Area. In particular, we welcome the Commission’s continued commitment to seek to increase the programme’s overall budget and in particular the strengthening of “bottom-up” funding instruments such as the European Research Council and sustaining a reliable stream of world-class research, for instance through the Marie Curie Actions.

In a competitive marketplace, there’s a temptation to focus on ideas that have obvious near-term applications, and to emphasise applied research over basic, curiosity-driven research. That might mean taking fewer risks, but – as Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie explained at the Convention in a speech and virtual discussion with EU Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn – it often results in only incremental innovation. On the other hand, investments in basic research can lead to breakthroughs that open up new and unexpected opportunities. Mundie observed that to create Kinect, Microsoft tapped into the existing work of its research labs – including our lab in Cambridge, England – to overcome deep technical challenges in a relatively short time.

Mundie noted that Europe can become even more competitive in the global economy by increasing its sources of consistent, high-quality basic research – research that will produce breakthroughs that could drive both job creation and the broad economy in the decades ahead. He believes that research universities, in particular, play a critical dual role of engaging in basic research and educating the workforces of the future. Research universities, said Mundie, are where disciplines intermingle – and it’s increasingly clear that an interdisciplinary approach is required not only to be globally competitive, but also to tackle complex problems such as education, healthcare, energy and the environment. In addition, said Mundie, we also need well-educated workforces and more entrepreneurial companies that can swiftly transform new technologies into products.

There are no simple answers, but the EU is in a strong position to tap its rich history of invention, its large market, and the traditions of innovation, creativity and diversity that have made Europe great. By pulling these strengths together, the Innovation Union and its Horizon 2020 can be a game-changer for the European economy.

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