Exclusive interview with Iliana Ivanova on the future of European research

In the run-up to the European elections, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Iliana Ivanova, explores strategies for strengthening research in Europe in the face of global competition, focusing on collaboration, innovation and strategic autonomy, and the role of research performing organizations like the CNRS.

As the European elections approach, it’s a critical moment for Europe, particularly in the context of research and innovation, given the escalating scientific competition from the United States and China. How can Europe’s excellence in research be maintained in this context?

Iliana Ivanova : The US and China are research and innovation powerhouses with higher percentage of R&D spending than the EU. In the US, this was 3.5% of GDP, and in China 2.65%. The EU spent 2.24% of its GDP in 2022.

So first, our leading position in science can only be maintained if we increase both public and private investment in research, innovation, education and skills as a foundation of our future capacities.

Secondly, we need to continue reinforcing the European Research Area, making research careers and innovation activities more attractive in Europe. We also need to build on the breadth and excellence of the whole European knowledge base, overcoming boundaries between scientific disciplines, sectors or geographies, tapping into all pools of talents and ideas, and making knowledge flow better.

And third, we need to keep cooperating with like-minded international partners in key strategic areas, not only to address challenges that are global by nature, but also as this reinforces the quality and reach of our own research.

The recent World Economic Forum in Davos highlighted how the EU is tending to lag behind in certain industrial areas (AI, quantum, semiconductors, batteries, etc.). So how can we ensure the strategic autonomy of the EU and provide a structured collective response to stop the gap widening even further between the EU and the United States and China?

I.I.: European Economic Security Strategy calls for promoting EU’s competitiveness and working with like-minded partners while protecting the EU from security risks. We need to continuously assess risks associated with critical technologies in close collaboration with the Member States including AI, semiconductors, quantum and biotechnology.

In the current framework research program Horizon Europe 1 , we already have safeguards in place for actions linked to the EU strategic interests, autonomy or security. In January, we presented a proposal for a Council Recommendation on research security that sets out guidance and support actions to raise awareness and enhance resilience across Europe. It aims at managing risks such as undesirable transfer of critical technology, malign influence and ethical or integrity violations by third countries. At the same time, it underscores the importance of international cooperation and openness following the principle ’as open as possible, as closed as necessary’.

The current Framework Programme (Horizon Europe) is reputed for its very high level of international scientific openness. How does this fit with European strategic sovereignty imperatives, particularly in the framework of dual research projects? What role can and should research play as regards defence issues?

I.I.: Openness and collaboration are indeed part of the DNA of great science, but they can also make it vulnerable to malign influence and undesirable transfer of critical technologies. This can undermine our security. The recommendation on research security that we proposed in January aims to ensure that researchers can do their work independently and safely.

And indeed, many technologies that underpin our economic security and strategic autonomy have a dual-use potential. We believe the time has come to discuss whether creating more synergies between civil and defence R&D would be beneficial. This is why we launched a public consultation on options for enhancing support for research and development involving technologies with dual-use potential. It is open until 30 April and I would like to encourage all relevant organisations and individuals to take part.

Horizon Europe has higher technological maturity levels which could hinder the work of certain basic research communities. Given this, how can the excellence of basic research be ensured while also facilitating the transfer of its results for innovation purposes?

I.I.: Horizon Europe supports all stages of maturity, from fundamental research to close-to-market innovation. With Horizon Europe support, excellent scientists can advance science but also turn their findings into concrete applications.

The European Research Council (ERC) together with Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) are the main sources of funding for basic research and work with a higher budget than under Horizon 2020. 14 ERC grantees have received the Nobel prize since 2007. Among them, let me highlight two eminent French researchers: your very own Alain Aspect, Distinguished Scientist in the CNRS, and Professor Anne L’Huillier. Her journey is a prime example of how excellent fundamental research can lead to the creation of new innovative companies: she received support from all parts of the programme over time for her work on ultrafast lasers, starting with MSCA and ERC, and now also the European Innovation Council.

Collaborative projects addressing global societal challenges allow covering a broad range of technology readiness levels (TRL), starting with very low ones for instance in health. Many of them receive top level recognition of their scientific quality. These collaborations allow getting closer to the deployment and uptake of the solutions, supporting the wider societal and economic impact of research. I invite research organisations to get more involved in these projects, beyond Pillar 1 2 .

France’s CNRS is one of the world’s leading research organisation working in all’areas of cutting-edge research. How can it contribute to reinforcing Europe’s position in research?

I.I.: The CNRS indeed plays a pivotal role in the latest scientific and technological advancements in all fields. It boasts extensive international collaborations and excels in identifying key scientific and technological directions and strategic opportunities. It is also active in many of the research infrastructures prioritised by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures.

I also commend the CNRS for being proactive in Open Science, advocating for open access, data sharing and equitable publishing practices. CNRS acts as a positive model for other research organisations.

I think that it’s also important that CNRS has signalled its intention to revise its research assessment methods, moving beyond traditional metrics towards more nuanced indicators by signing the Agreement for the Reform of Research Assessment.

Another area where I believe organisations like the CNRS have a key role to play is outreach. We need to engage with society to highlight the value of research and to attract young people who would become the researchers and innovators of tomorrow.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently asked the CNRS to oversee a new ’Climate, Biodiversity, Sustainable Societies’ programmes agency. These were of course core themes for the European scientific agenda a few years ago. How are they managed and integrated into Horizon Europe and the new upcoming European framework programme 3 ?

I.I.: The EU is committed to funding impactful research on these topics. Horizon Europe devotes 35% of its budget to climate-related research and 10% to biodiversity. Hundreds of projects, including via the EU Missions and European Partnerships are supporting these priorities, in particular in the clusters of Pillar 2 but also in bottom-up actions. It is likely that finding solutions to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss will continue to play a major role in the future.

Given these issues and challenges and with European elections just a few weeks away, what are your ambitions for the successor to Horizon Europe? How will continuity with the previous programmes be ensured?

I.I.: The proposal for a future framework programme will be put forward by the next Commission. In terms of content, it will build on the lessons learned from 40 years of experience on what worked well and less well, including the latest programme’s evaluations.

In particular we know we have to do better in terms of broadening participation, further simplifying and reducing administrative burden, reinforcing the dissemination, exploitation and deployment of results, and enhancing synergies with other initiatives at EU, national and regional level. Any new programme will also need to take into account the new scientific, technological, economic and geopolitical context.

We will commit to increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of spending, but we also need a budget level that is in line with our ambitions and ensures the programme’s continued success.

    1 Horizon Europe is the European Union’s framework program for research and innovation, succeeding the Horizon 2020 program.

    2 The first pillar of the Horizon Europe program, known as ’Excellent Science,’ will support projects in fundamental research, fund exchanges, and promote the development of research infrastructures.

    3 The ninth framework program for research and innovation, which began in 2021, will end in 2027. The European Commission is preparing its successor, FP10, which will cover the period 2028-2034.