Letter from Brussels: European Research and Innovation

Bridges vol. 41, October 2014 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Marlene Schoder-Kienbeck, attaché for Science and Research, Brussels

European Research and Innovation – At the Crossroads?

The 2014 European Forum Alpbach, which took place August 13–29, focused on one major question: Which course should Europe take in order to head into a successful future? In other words, which routes should be taken at various crossroads? According to the Alpbach Executive Board, headed by former Minister and EU Commissioner Franz Fischler, it is now crucial – 100 years after World War I and 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – to decide which direction Europe wants to go and how it intends to tackle future challenges. These challenges are not only in science, research, and technology but also concern medicine, education, law, and decision making at the EU level in the fields of politics, economics, the environment, and the financial market. 

At the Alpbach Technology Forum (August 21–23, 2014), talks on research and innovation also focused on the main steps that need to be taken. Presenters at the opening panel, including Doris Bures, the Austrian minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology (BMVIT), Reinhold Mitterlehner, the minister for Science, Research and Economy (BMWFW), and Hannes Androsch, president of the AIT Supervisory Board and the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development (RFTE), offered their ideas for the future.

The panelists stressed Austria’s preparedness for future progress: Mr. Mitterlehner pointed out that the expenditures on research and innovation have increased from 1.5 percent of GDP in 1995 to the current level of 2.9 percent. Austrian researchers and universities generate a large amount of new knowledge. However they have yet to improve the way this knowledge is utilized. Several initiatives are planned to help to foster this development. BMWFW has, for example, allocated €11.3 million to four new centers for knowledge transfer. It also co-funds the patenting costs of universities in order to enhance the patenting and application of the universities’ research findings.

In a joint project, BMVIT and BMWFW will cooperate to develop a strategy for protection and utilization of intellectual property rights. Both ministers stressed that the future management of IP rights will be crucial for Austrian industry and small market economies. According to the Innovation Union Scoreboard 2014, Austria ranks 6th in Europe’s registration of patents, though only 16th place when it comes to the share of sales generated with new products.

Doris Bures also brought up the importance of “Industry 4.0” for the future of manufacturing. BMVIT will provide €250 million for research, innovation, and application in this field. In addition, BMWFW will fund “Industry 4.0” processes with €30 million in the years 2014 and 2015. This funding will cover the entire innovation chain: from discovering ideas, to research and development, to infrastructure and software. BMVIT’s partners in managing this funding line are the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) and the AWS (Austria Wirtschaftsservice). Minister Bures also welcomed 50 technology and natural sciences students who received a scholarship for the Alpbach talks provided by BMVIT in cooperation with FFG.

According to Hannes Androsch, Austria lacks investment in education and should take action to counteract the “brain drain” of Austrian talent. While highly valuing Austrian talents, Minister Mitterlehner reminded the audience that Austrian students and researchers are encouraged to use mobility funds such as ERASMUS+ to gain experience abroad, and that Austria should also enhance its attractiveness to foreign students and researchers. The number of ERC grants transferred to Austrian research institutions is promising in this context.

After the opening session, three expert panels elaborated on the impacts of the new industrial technologies, “Industry 4.0,” on the importance of a “culture of failure” for innovation, and on current findings in the field of neurological research. James Plummer from Stanford University discussed the “culture of failure” in Silicon Valley, stressing not only that accepting failure was an important aspect of growth, but also that a culture of success and of multidisciplinary cooperation must be developed if Europe wants to create industrial hubs like Silicon Valley. Furthermore, students should be encouraged to become entrepreneurs and to realize their ideas on the basis of different and new sources of funding (e.g., crowd sourcing).

On the second day of the Alpbach Technology Forum, 11 workshops highlighted different fields and aspects of innovation: Topics concerned the (globalized) technology market, disruptive innovation and supply chains, and questions on future (including energy and urban growth) technologies, the appreciation of science in society, and – of particular note– the future of funding.

One panelist in the workshop on “Financing Research Publicly/Privately? New models in a globalized world” was Robert-Jan Smits, director general of the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation. His main message was that “we have to put our money where our mouth is.” While the European Commission considers Austria to be one of the countries performing well, he recommended that Austria get rid of some of its famous Gemütlichkeit (congeniality) and get ready for the tough, global competition in research and innovation. His copanelists joined in, stressing that research institutions should look for funding opportunities other than public funds, although the public sector will remain a major player. Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell, consultant at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and former member of the governing board at the European Central Bank, pointed out that elite institutions such as Stanford receive a good deal of their financial resources from trust funds and not as much from industry. In her opinion, Austria’s primary focus should be on improving governance and on making target-oriented investments in science and research, starting at the regional level. Heinz Engl, rector of the University of Vienna, reported that his university is becoming more and more open to applied research, while he is also proud of the fact that two ERC grantees at his university work in the field of philosophy. Sabine Ladstätter, director of the Austrian Archeological Institute Ephesos, reported on her success in attracting private sponsors during the last few years. Her experience is that Austria needs to develop a “culture of private sponsoring.”

When asked about the situation in the US, Philipp Marxgut, attaché at the Office of Science and Technology Austria in Washington, DC, stated that private and public funding complement each other well in the US. Nevertheless, research performed at universities is mainly financed by public funds, as well as by the universities themselves. He reminded the audience that the military is a big investor in science and research in the US and is also the first customer for new products, thus facilitating knowledge transfer to the market.

Gi-Eun Kim, professor of biotechnology at Seokyeong University Seoul and a member of the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development (RFTE) presented statistics on the science and innovation developments in the Republic of Korea. Currently, the Korean R&D budget amounts to 4.4 percent of its GDP. With this expenditure, Korea ranks second in the world, topped only by Israel, which spends 4.4 percent on R&D. While Korea manages to generate the bigger part of its R&D expenditure from private investors, public funding also increased by 12.6 percent between 2003 and 2012. Kim pointed out that public investments during recent decades have been cyclic and topic-centered, starting with the automotive industry, microchips, healthy aging, and biotechnologies, and moving on to current investments in solar technologies. 

Another perspective from Asia was brought in by Birgit Murr, director of the Austrian Office of Science and Technology in Beijing: Murr believes that European researchers will have many opportunities to cooperate with Chinese researchers in the future, since China has developed a comprehensive research strategy until 2020 which will contribute to solving some of the biggest problems China has to face, in particular environmental pollution. 

After two days of intensive talks, the 1,300 participants of the Alpbach Technology Forum left Tyrol with a multitude of impressions and ideas, as well as new indications for which routes Austria must choose to take at the crossroads.

Marlene Schoder-Kienbeck is the Austrian Attaché for Science and Research at the Permanent Representation of Austria to the EU.