Carlos Moedas’ legacy depends on his successor
by Jan Palmowski
When Carlos Moedas ends his five-year stint as European commissioner for research and innovation in October, he will leave a strong legacy.
As early as 2015, Moedas began to advocate the formation of a European Innovation Council (EIC), to create a bottom-up instrument that is as effective and attractive to top innovators as the European Research Council is for top researchers. Throughout his time in office, Moedas has insisted that Europe needs more disruptive innovation, pointing, for instance, to the much greater availability of venture capital in the US.
However, innovation capacity can be measured in a number of ways, and the 2019 European Innovation Scoreboard shows that on a composite range of measures the EU is now ahead of the US. This is thanks, in part, to a relative improvement in the performance of its higher education and research sectors. This does not make the EIC redundant, but it does point to the critical link between breakthrough science, challenge-led research and innovation, which the EIC must sustain in practice.
Moedas’ public focus on innovation has led to sustained nervousness among universities about his support for fundamental research. This is reinforced by a growing sense that, in practice, Horizon 2020’s Societal Challenges pillar favoured close-to-market solutions. However, Moedas has acknowledged the importance of research, often lamenting that we do not shout enough about the achievements of EU-funded projects. He has consistently supported the ERC as Europe’s “jewel in the crown”, defending the independence of its governing Scientific Council and proposing to increase its budget in the next framework programme, Horizon Europe, which begins in 2021.
On open science, transforming the scientific method – entailing open-access publishing, data sharing, adjusted rewards and incentives, and alternative metrics for publication impact – is clearly beyond any single individual. Hence, it is not surprising that, in many areas, progress has been slow. Still, Moedas oversaw the creation of the European Open Science Cloud for open data sharing and, through a close alliance with many key European funding agencies, has helped push open access towards a possible tipping point with the launch of Plan S.
But Horizon Europe is Moedas’ key legacy. He asked a high-level expert group chaired by the former director of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy, to articulate a European vision for research and innovation. The 2017 Lamy report raised the profile of research and innovation as a core added value of the EU and demanded a budget of at least €120 billion (£107 billion) for Horizon Europe.
In the end, the Commission proposed €94 billion. On one level, this was a disappointment to those decision-makers and university lobbyists who had consistently argued for a doubling of the Horizon 2020 budget of €74 billion. However, given that the €94 billion excludes the UK’s previous contribution, this proposal is still a significant result.
Because research and innovation constitute the biggest part of the EU budget that is distributed through free competition, without national quotas, there might be pressure for cuts as new initiatives emerge during the EU’s next spending period. The new commissioner must fight off such attempts, support proven successes (notably the ERC) and ensure that new instruments such as the EIC fulfil their aims. Horizon Europe must remain, at its core, distinguished by scientific excellence. Political projects for social and economic collaboration that lack a clear research and innovation rationale should be left to the structural and regional funds where they belong.
The increasing political visibility of research and innovation in the EU achieved by Moedas comes with risks attached. It can be tempting for politicians to instrumentalise research, creating narratives that favour simplistic, mechanistic and exaggerated views of how science works – and what it can achieve. Indeed, the expected impact is likely to feature prominently in future work programmes and funding calls. It is important that deliverables are realistic and achievable by excellent science. The new commissioner must also be adept at making the case for a long-term approach to maximising the value of science and innovation.
This begins with emphasising the value of challenge-led research, while also stressing that breakthrough discoveries cannot, by definition, be foreseen – let alone be predetermined – by political agendas.