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In the hotseat: 5 questions for Commissioner Gabriel

Commissioner Gabriel says she is proud of the way European scientists and innovations have worked together to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Image credit - European Union

The only way for Europe to recover from the coronavirus crisis and build a better future is to work together and the pandemic has made that clearer than ever, according to EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel. She told Horizon about the biggest impacts of the pandemic on research and innovation and her vision for where EU-funded research is headed.

1. When you started this role in December, I bet you didn’t think your first year as research commissioner would unfold like this. What have you learned?

This has been indeed an extraordinary year by anyone’s standards. For me, it was particularly interesting to see research and innovation receive an increase in public attention. We have all clearly seen the crucial role it plays in our lives – be it in protecting people’s lives from coronavirus or in Europe’s green and digital transitions.

I was proud to see the determination of scientists and innovators in Europe to find solutions, and how they came together, proving the importance of working together to tackle the biggest problems. I was also heartened by how flexible we can be in adapting quickly to new realities. As early as January, we mobilised Horizon 2020 (the EU’s current research funding programme) into urgently needed coronavirus research and innovation. All this gives us hope, as we continue to combat the virus and work hard to make Europe more resilient and sustainable.

Researchers are the main drivers of knowledge, attuned to the most pressing concerns of our contemporary societies. A well-performing education and research landscape will become even more necessary in order to face key challenges in the future.

At the end of September, I presented my key initiatives for a European research area, a  European education area and a digital education action plan, which contribute to a more inclusive, greener and digital Europe when it comes to research and education.

2. Over the course of the pandemic, as the scientific advice and information has emerged, everyone has had to adapt. How did you choose the EU’s research priorities for coronavirus?

The European Commission started addressing the virus at the very beginning of the outbreak. Overall, we are investing more than €1 billion as part of the Coronavirus Global Response. And we coordinated European and global research efforts.

Of course, it all had to start with trying to understand the virus better. In January, we launched our first Covid-19 emergency call to advance our knowledge on the novel virus. Since then, we have continued with additional research and support actions, capitalising on Europe’s scientific capacity and the latest developments in the field. This includes support for infrastructures and data resources that enable decisive research.

We also launched short- and long-term activities. For example, nearly 30,000 people from 114 countries participated in the EUvsVirus hackathon to generate 2,150 innovative solutions by the end of April. A total of 2,235 partnerships which span different forms of funding and benefits, such as mentoring, were brokered by the European Innovation Council (EIC). The EIC also awarded €166m for the development of solutions to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks to the Horizon 2020 funding programme we are able to act on multiple fronts, from frontier research and cooperation with Member States, to start-ups and involving citizens.

3. How has the pandemic reshaped European research priorities and what impact will it have on these long-term?

To be ready for a next crisis, we must support researchers and innovators to work together, share results and data openly and acquire the skills they need to provide us with solutions for our societal challenges. With the plans for a new European research area unveiled on 30 September, we propose to join forces with all EU countries to prioritise investment and reforms in research and innovation, improve access to excellence for researchers across Europe and ensure results efficiently find their way to the market.

In April, we initiated an action plan, which was adopted by Member States and helped to coordinate all the research and innovation efforts with national administrations, focusing on coordination of funding, research data and information exchange. In less than two weeks (on 20 April) we launched the European Covid-19 data portal to enable the rapid collection and sharing of available research data to support researchers in Europe and around the world.

But it is not only about supporting the communities. It is essential to deliver concrete results, like Re-open EU, a platform that contains essential information allowing a safe relaunch of free movement across Europe. It provides real-time information on borders, travel restrictions, and public health and safety measures.

In Horizon Europe, the next EU research and innovation funding programme that runs from 2021-27, health projects will cover virology, vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, and the translation of research findings into public health policy measures. The climate, energy and mobility, digital industry, and space clusters will aid the scale-up of research resources in climate-related domains and ensure that European enterprises have access to the technologies and data they need.

Research and innovation are vital for fighting the pandemic, as well as for sustainable and inclusive recovery.

‘Research and innovation have never been so high on the political agenda.’

Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth

4. How exactly do you see the role of R&I in the recovery from the effects of the pandemic – including social, educational and economic?

I want Europe to emerge stronger and more resilient from this crisis. For that to happen, research, innovation and education are indispensable, and investments are key. The current crisis is also a unique opportunity for the EU and its Member States to strengthen their policy coherence and joint efforts towards achieving resilience and sustainability.

Horizon Europe will be crucial to this. It will support crucial health and climate-related research and innovation activities. Its new wave of European Partnerships will ensure long-term strategic cooperation between public and private actors covering critical areas such as energy, transport, biodiversity, health, food and circularity. The new EU missions will tackle some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as adaptation to climate change, saving more lives from cancer, restoring our ocean and waters, greener cities and healthy soils.

We also should not underestimate the impact this crisis has on people’s mental health, such as the psychological impact of quarantines. We will continue to support research in social sciences and humanities, as well as in behaviour and mental health. For example, we supported four new research projects with €28 million to investigate behavioural, social and economic impacts of the outbreak responses.

5. The proposed Horizon Europe budget has been cut at a time when arguably research has never been more visible and important. What’s your take on this?

Indeed. Research and innovation have never been so high on the political agenda. Only science and technology will help us to tackle concretely the ongoing global threats and challenges. And Covid-19 has served as a timely reminder to all of us of the necessity to invest in research and innovation as well as to cooperate with our partners despite tensions at a geopolitical level.

Research and innovation play an essential role in shaping Europe’s future.

Like President von der Leyen, I have expressed that the budget reduction is a regrettable decision. We believe that the original Commission proposal was ambitious, but also realistic. Nevertheless, after the July European Council, Horizon Europe still keeps a robust budget envelope to prepare the competitiveness of the European economy for the widest social benefit of the citizens. And we need to recognise that additional funds will also be allocated from Next Generation EU, the €750bn recovery instrument for Member States, to Horizon Europe.

On 29 September, Member States came to agreement on the last remaining open issues of Horizon Europe concerning budget, international cooperation and synergies with other EU programmes. The Commission will act as an honest broker in the forthcoming trilogues (negotiations between the Council, Parliament and Commission) on the new budget. A timely agreement on Horizon Europe is in the best interest of our researchers, innovators, companies but most importantly citizens.

One thing is certain, we will not be successful in our ambitions without collaboration from regions, cities and villages. We are working on a joint action plan with the Committee of the Regions to build an inclusive research and innovation landscape in Europe.

We need strong links with our neighbours in this area. The innovation agenda for the Western Balkans will contribute to this aim.

We need to be concrete about what we want to achieve in the short term: to bridge the innovation divide (the difference in innovation capacity between different parts of Europe), to foster a fair and just transition, to develop innovation ecosystems in every region in Europe, and to provide the necessary resources for all our talent.

Excellence and inclusiveness are the two sides of the same coin. The EU can only succeed if everyone progresses.