Why is the EU’s new innovation agenda near silent on universities?

We need a vision of how to foster the knowledge base and creative mindsets on which new thinking depends, says Jan Palmowski

July 14, 2022
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One of the frustrations of being a European commissioner must be that once multi-year budgets have been set and programmes announced, it is very difficult to carve out new instruments.

That no doubt explains why most of the substantive tools contained in the commission’s New European Innovation Agenda have already been announced. The European Union’s instruments for this seven-year period (including Horizon Europe and Erasmus+) were set in 2020. This provides stability, but it also makes the intervening period somewhat uneventful.

As European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, Mariya Gabriel, has so far invested most of her focus on the development of the European Education Area and the European Research Area. The New European Innovation Agenda, announced on 5 July, completes the set of policy frameworks for higher education.

Proceeding from the observation that Europe is strong in science but weaker at translating this into innovation, the agenda calls for strengthening Europe’s capacity for deep tech innovation. It identifies five challenges and proposes a group of actions (“flagships”) for each of them.

To address a lack of venture capital for start-ups, the agenda recommends funding for deep tech scale-ups. To improve framework conditions for deep tech innovation, it outlines a programme of actions to foster deep tech innovation through experimentation spaces and public procurement. And to overcome the deep tech divide between regions, the agenda pledges to foster the EU’s innovation ecosystem.

But most of the tools in this strategy that are actually new, such as the creation of an innovation-friendly “Regulations Advisory Group”, are likely to make little difference. A further case in point is the flagship to improve innovation policymaking tools. Here we are promised the publication of an exploratory report on definitions relating to start-ups, scale-ups and deep-tech innovation by 2023. It is hard to envisage any transformative impact of such measures.

Perhaps the most headline-grabbing new initiative is within the flagship to foster and develop deep tech talent. Following an announcement by Gabriel at the Education and Innovation Summit on 23 June, over the next three years the European Institute of Technology (EIT) will “target” 1 million deep tech talents. The meaning of “target” is not entirely clear, but this appears to be an ambitious number for an institution that supported the graduation of just over 3,800 students last year. Given the EIT’s pre-existing spending commitments, there is a real question precisely how it proposes to achieve this goal, whom it aims to reach and how, and what EIT support will mean in practice. Precisely how substantive will this “targeting” be?

More fundamentally, this is an agenda that is highly partial to deep tech innovation. It is completely unclear why this is so. To be sure, deep tech innovation is important and must be supported. But it is surely critical that we foster innovation across the economy, society and culture. What do we learn from the spectacular success stories of the European BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines, for example, in terms of how they link fundamental research and innovation? And how do we ensure Europe’s innovators – in whichever sector they are – have the talent pool they need to develop?

In addressing these questions, universities are central actors. But the New Innovation Agenda is near silent on how the innovative capacities of universities can be strengthened. It lacks a comprehensive vision of how we can better foster the knowledge base and the creative mindsets of researchers and students on which innovation depends.

Instead, the agenda – pragmatically – focuses on new tools and platforms that can be achieved within the mandate of this commission, by 2024. But this short-term focus prevents it tackling the big questions: what is the relationship between the EIT and the European Innovation Council, and do we need both? What is the difference between the proposed deep tech innovation valleys and excellence hubs? What happens when the commission’s new drive for deep tech innovation is not aligned to existing regional innovation (“smart specialisation”) strategies?

The question of how European instruments that have emerged over time relate to each other can only be addressed if we put rapidly emerging national instruments and innovation agencies in the mix. We need a European Innovation Area that ensures that across the EU, the sum is more than its parts.

This would need to bring together different departments (directorates general) of the commission and of national governments. It would require leadership from the very top. And in this discussion, about how Europe can enhance innovation in an increasingly competitive world, the EU should keep its neighbours (such as members of the European Free Trade Association) close.

Addressing deep tech innovation is important. But it does not absolve us from the need to develop an overarching European innovation strategy grounded in frontier research and the education of creative minds.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

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