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21 Dec 2017

Science|Business: A year-end view - interview with EC Director-General Smits

Science|Business article:

A year-end view: the growing role of science and technology in EU policy

In an interview with Science|Business Director-General Robert-Jan Smits looks forward to greater synergies for research among EU policy areas, from agriculture to development

By Richard L. Hudson

BRUSSELS – Robert-Jan Smits, head of one of the European Commission’s biggest departments, is just back from a conference in South Africa and is in an enthusiastic mood – as usual – about what science and technology can do for the world.

He mentions a few new ideas circulating in Pretoria, for combining science and development aid - with European Union help. One would create a hospital and clinic to speed trials of new medicines, under a big drug development programme for the region funded jointly by the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation and the Directorate-General for Development. Another would build a solar energy plant in the South African desert, to power the massive new radio telescopes of the Square Kilometre Array, as well as the villages surrounding it. 

The prospect excites him. “I have the best job in the world,” he says.

These kind of science and technology projects have been part of the daily routine of Smits since 2010, as director-general for research and innovation. And they reflect a growing mission – some might say crusade – of Smits, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, and others in the Commission to expand the role and impact of science and technology programmes. They see more research and innovation as essential to keeping Europe together following Brexit, feeding its population, rebuilding its poorer regions and advancing its diplomacy. “This is the future of Europe,” Smits says in an interview with Science|Business.

The next steps in this mission are politically complicated. The main programme, Horizon 2020, will spend €30 billion over the next three years to fund blue-sky research from brain science to economics; provide grants and loans to thousands of tech start-ups across the EU; and fund big, collaborative projects from developing better water and food for the southern Mediterranean to supporting advanced manufacturing and Big Data technologies for industry.

Beyond this, Smits and colleagues are currently drafting the next big Framework Programme 9, to start in 2021, which Smits wants it to be bigger than Horizon 2020. 

The need to collaborate

But they are also negotiating with other Commission departments and member states to expand the role of research and innovation in agriculture, regional development and foreign development aid. This has been an objective of past research commissioners for years, with mixed results. But the next 18 months hold the prospect of more action than in the past – partly because, with the UK leaving the EU, taking its 12.5 per cent net budget contribution with it, everybody’s budget in Brussels is under threat. Everybody needs more political allies from other sectors, and that means collaborating across departments more than in the past. 

To read the full Science|Business article, please click here.

Photo: EC Director-General Robert-Jan Smits, by Science|Business

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