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Thoughts on the future of EU research funding
By: Andrew Herbert, Chairman, Microsoft Research EMEA
31 May 2011

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Early May, European Commissioner for Research and Innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn re-stated her desire to go further in cutting red tape and for the Commission to be innovative itself to release the full potential of EU funded research and innovation. She encouraged interested parties who had not yet given their views to respond to the consultation on the Common Strategic Framework for Research and Innovation Funding.

Today, when I checked the Commission’s website I noticed a staggering response: over 1,300 online responses and 750 written responses. You can find Microsoft’s response this consultation here.

In my view the EU instruments supporting research and innovation, and in particular the Framework Programmes, have proved very worthwhile in encouraging researchers across Europe and the associate countries to collaborate better, both accelerating and raising the quality of research across the entire region.

Of course, I do share the view of the Commissioner and of most of the respondents that the European Commission should continue cutting red tape whenever possible. But I would like to share here few more thoughts of a more strategic nature.

What is going to be most important moving forward, especially during these difficult financial times will be to maintain the level of support of leading edge bottom up research in our major centres of excellence, where such funding will have the best impact.

To focus on excellence also implies identifying and supporting the best performers of research. Do not get me wrong, I’m not advocating moving towards a result-based instead of cost-based funding which would favour low-risk projects with predictable outcomes. My suggestion is to look at research investments as a portfolio and reduce support for organisations having a history of receiving funding from the European Commission but with little to show for it after, say, a decade. When I was running the Microsoft Research laboratory in Cambridge, I was not asked to justify the success or failure of individual projects, but I needed to show that the impact of previous successful projects would easily justify the ongoing investment of the corporation in bottom up research.

Another important point is to resist the temptation of directing "top down" research too strongly. The European Commission’s goal to increase the focus of research activities on societal challenges is a laudable one but this should be done very carefully. Firstly, it is worth noting that many curiosity-driven bottom up research projects already tackle some societal challenges, so the two are not incompatible. More importantly, curiosity-driven research is the breeding ground for directed, top-down research. It would be dangerous for the long term economic growth of Europe to shift resources from the former to the latter. It is just good insurance policy for Europe. We should remind ourselves of Pasteur’s seminal work on treating infection in chickens, which led to the more general and impactful work of vaccinations of humans. Initiatives such as the European Research Council should therefore be strengthen.  Rather than telling researchers what problems to work out the European Commission should invest in instruments such as conferences and workshops that bring researchers together to discuss how their work might contribute to "grand challenges", thereby creating a context in which bottom up work can be combined to achieve top down goals.  Additional support for the top down objective should then be provided to facilitate the collaborations and infrastructure needed to produce the desired results.

Finally, in my own field, computer science, I see a real need to put more emphasis on supporting vertically structured projects as opposed to horizontal "platforms". Platforms are at best an enabling mechanism and do not advance the state of the art in applications.  By vertical projects I mean projects that select partners from different domains, including technology suppliers focus on a shared application-oriented vision enabled by technology innovation in all the represented domains. Doing so would ensure that partners involved in one project would natural partners rather than competitors and would make it more likely for them to genuinely work together to develop solutions to major societal and business needs – for example IT systems to help support an ageing population. (Having competitors involved in a project, at least in my experience, has the effect that projects run slowly and aim for the lowest common denominator, an undesirable outcome in such a fast moving field as Information Technology. One might argue that large consortia with several competitors help build consensus.

The European Commission has reached a critical point in time regarding the funding of research and innovation in Europe and will now need to make clear choices for the future. Supporting and growing the critical mass of talented people trained in the best universities and research centres will be key.

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