European Excellence in Research: paving the path for the young generation // Exclusive interview included in RISIS Newsletter issue #6
Interview with Mariya Gabriel
Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth
European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel accepted the invitation to join the RISIS Newsletter and illustrate in her vision the future of European research and innovation in addressing societal challenges and adding value to citizens’ daily lives.
The pandemic emergency has outlined new European research priorities. What is in your view the role of R&I in reshaping the competitiveness and excellence of the European Research Area?
The COVID pandemic showed that cooperation and openness in research could generate results faster for the benefit of governments, regions, researchers and citizens. It has shown that by joining forces and sharing both results and the underlying data we are able to create new ground-breaking results at a much higher pace than in former years. This is in our view the way forward and the spirit behind the renewed European Research Area, as now adopted by the Council with the Recommendation for a Pact for research and innovation in November 2021.
The renewed ERA is built around four strategic priorities where prioritising investments and reforms in research and innovation, including also basic, curiosity-driven research is very important to create the possibilities to strive in research and innovation. In particular, the target of 3% of GDP to be invested on EU research and innovation is reaffirmed while further cooperation among Member states and alignment of national efforts is encouraged with, on a voluntary basis, a target of 5% of national public funding to joint research and development programmes and European partnerships, by 2030.
Secondly, we need to improve the access to excellence for researchers across the EU. This notably includes research infrastructures, data and other scientific services to provide researchers with the best conditions to carry out their work and implement new ideas, fostering the development of state-of-the-art platforms for excellent research in the ERA.
Another important priority is to ensure that the results are not staying in the laboratories, but create the impacts for our society and citizens, and are transferred to the economy to boost business investments and market uptake of research output.
The last priority concerns the mobility of researchers and free flow of knowledge and technology, which needs strengthening. These priorities create the best conditions to cater for excellent research and to help the Union achieve a leading position as a knowledge society and a global scientific powerhouse thereby increasing our global competitiveness in research.
However, it is not enough to establish a set of priorities! Delivering the ERA requires working together and strengthen links with education at all levels. Communicating science in a better and innovative way is key to gain the trust of our society. This is an important objective in the Strategy for Universities that the Commission is presenting to the European Parliament, to Member States and to stakeholders.
Let’s not forget that around half of the European researchers work in the academic context and we need to bring these two dimensions closer and provide attractive career perspectives to young researchers. The new ERA will only become a driver of change at European, national and regional level with the commitment of Member States and stakeholders to implement the ERA priorities.
As Europe is facing significant societal, ecological and economic challenges, aggravated by the Covid-19 crisis, excellent research & innovation are crucial to address them and keep Europe competitive. At the same time, the urgency of some of these challenges and their complexity call for the most effective and efficient use of our research & innovation capacities. This is why coordination of national R&I policies and programmes, as well as complementarity and synergies with EU programmes are so important if we want to deliver with concrete outcome.
Delivering the ERA, therefore, requires an ambitious agenda, which the 27 Member States, stakeholders and the associated countries and the Commission jointly developed during last autumn. The ERA policy agenda with its 20 concrete joint actions will be the litmus test for all of us, as their successful implementation will prove if the new ERA can make a difference and build a European R&I system as a driver for change in support of our European values.
For example, the ERA Hub initiative will enable the emergence of competitive R&I ecosystems across the EU to fill territorial gaps and to ensure easier flow of talents and investments
Similarly, another planned action aims at promoting and monitoring access to excellence of researchers and institutions from widening countries with cohesion policy support. It will also support Member States to better integrate researchers in smart specialisation strategies in cooperation with industry; and will help designing measures to support researchers in widening countries to improve their skills for excellence in the labour market.
RISIS aims to promote an open data research infrastructure in the field of Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies. What role can open research infrastructures play in helping young researchers in performing their research without boundaries as well as communities to invest even more in knowledge, helping citizens to improve their lives?
Open research infrastructures are key enablers of research and innovation and are an essential instrument of Open Science policies. By providing access to state-of-the-art facilities, data, collections, modelling tools, computing capacities and other scientific services, open research infrastructures attract researchers and talents from all over the world, contribute to the circulation of skills and are acting as excellent science hubs.
This is particularly beneficial to researchers in their earlier career stage. By accessing these open research infrastructures and being involved in international and multidisciplinary research projects carried out in these facilities, young researchers are exposed to the best scientific practices, trained to use state-of-the art (and often complex) instruments and tools and get opportunities to collaborate with new teams.
The EU via its successive R&I Framework Programmes has been instrumental in supporting transnational access to large networks of national and pan-European facilities and explicitly expected impact on ‘new generation of researchers trained to optimally exploit all the essential and advanced tools for their research’. This provides opportunities complementary to dedicated schemes such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and increase skills and competences relevant for innovation and long-term employability.
It is also important to highlight the potential of collaboration of networked computing infrastructures be it Cloud or High Performance Computing to enable more collaboration between organisation and ease the access to advanced infrastructures, including by sharing key research data.
The research infrastructures prioritised by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) and/or established as European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERICs) have an open access policy and have developed dedicated schemes to attract new users, notably young researchers, and offer them ad-hoc support.
For example CERIC-ERIC, the Central Eastern Research Infrastructure Consortium, in the field of material sciences, has a dedicated access scheme for young, less experienced researchers supporting them when applying to access the facilities.
Another example: a network of European research vessels, EUROFLEETS+, build capacity in European ocean sciences research through a series of innovative webinars, blue skill labs and floating universities targeted at postgraduate students, early career researchers and professionals.
Beyond acting as excellent science hubs, open research infrastructures are enabling the necessary research and innovation to address key societal challenges in particular those flagged among EU priorities, in line with the renewed European Research Area objectives.
One can mention concrete and non-academic impact of the European Social Survey, ESS ERIC, which measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of diverse populations in more than thirty nations. An analysis of its data by Norway contributed to a better monitoring of health inequalities in Europe; another use of data contributed to an improved training of judges and support for reforms of the judiciary in Portugal (Supporting the transformative impact of research infrastructures on European research -Report of the High-Level Expert Group to assess the progress of ESFRI and other world class research infrastructures towards implementation and long-term sustainability, page 189).
Open research infrastructures have also demonstrated their responsiveness with the COVID-19 Fast Response Service, a coordinated and accelerated procedure for researchers to access the academic facilities, services and resources of three European medical research infrastructures (BBMRI, The Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure,, ECRIN – The European Clinical Research Infrastructure Network and EATRIS -The European Advanced Translational Research Infrastructure in Medicine). In addition, they could quickly contribute to the new European COVID-19 Data Platform, which facilitates data sharing and analysis in order to accelerate coronavirus research.
Finally, I would like to mention an example where open research infrastructures help to address the European Green Deal priorities while involving directly citizens to improve their lives. The Horizon 2020 project ‘RI-URBANS’, combining air quality monitoring networks and research infrastructures knowledge and technologies, deploys tools and information systems in the hands of citizens and communities to support decision-making by air quality managers and regulators.
These are only examples but they show how an effective European Research Area can deliver to the society and improve citizens’ lives.
Innovation and technological progress are crucial for the future of Europe. How do EU policies support the cooperation between a prestigious Higher Education universe and the more advanced industrial system?
The higher education sector plays a crucial role in supporting high-level skills development for industry and the business sector, in addition to personal development purposes. Excellent education, research and innovation environments are key enablers, creating breakthrough knowledge and translating it into practical applications. Cooperation between universities and industrial ecosystems is mutually beneficial and should be encouraged. This fact is duly recognized in the European strategy for universities, which I presented on 18 January.
Our ambition is, in close cooperation with stakeholders and Member States, to support the future-proof skills development and entrepreneurship competences of graduates, and co-design of curricula between industry and higher education institutions in strategically important industrial sectors. The European strategy for universities will strengthen the role of higher education institutions in Europe in implementing ERA4You by promoting inter-sectoral mobility, in particular between academia and businesses.
The Strategy includes also several novelties to build bridges between the education and innovation. In particular, we will provide support for the development of incubators within higher education institutions in close collaboration with the entrepreneurial ecosystem. We will also organise an annual European Talent Fair to connect students and startups. The first edition will be under our initiative European Science in the City in Leiden 2022. These actions will be complemented with a new programme ‘Innovators at School”, aimed at involving leading personalities from start-ups to act as ambassadors and mentors to inspire young people and invite them to develop innovative ideas.
Strengthening innovation ecosystems for knowledge circulation and valorisation is another key priority of the new ERA policy. Industry-academia interactions is one of the key channels for knowledge valorisation. ERA actions include developing Guiding Principles for Knowledge Valorisation and Codes of Practices for smart use of intellectual property and standardisation, which will aim at improving knowledge valorisation also in the context of the industry-academia collaborations.
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) in Horizon Europe will encourage greater participation from companies, including through financial incentives, to equip researchers with a broader set of transferable skills needed to develop their career outside academia. Staff Exchanges, being the programme’s key action for inter-sectoral (including business) collaboration, will continue notably to allow researchers to develop new international collaborations between sectors and disciplines.
In addition, concrete novelties include providing financial incentives for the setting up of industrial doctorates under Doctoral Networks or opportunities under Postdoctoral Fellowships of an exposure to sectors beyond academia by granting an additional 6 months to researchers who intend to spend part of their fellowship in the non-academic sector. For instance, under Horizon 2020 (2014-2020) MSCA funded 1080 doctoral programmes, of which 156 were industrial doctoral programmes. MSCA involved 4 700 companies, of which 2 200 were SMEs.
The second pillar of Horizon Europe focuses on collaborations to deliver research and innovation that has impact on the ground in key policy areas from health, digital and industrial competitiveness, to climate, energy, natural resources and food systems. In this context, the European Partnerships are key initiatives, in which the EU, together with private and/or public partners including industry, support jointly the implementation of an integrated programme of research and innovation activities. In these Partnerships, industry collaborates with universities and research organisations, as well as with public bodies at local, regional, national or international level, and civil society organisations, including foundations and NGOs.
The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) represent the indispensable tools that will help creating a stronger European Research Area and contribute to achieving one of its main objective, i.e. translating R&I results into the economy.
To help higher education institutions build the capacity to teach innovation and entrepreneurship, and to develop concrete actions to increase their impact on their ecosystems, the EIT with its KICs have launched the Higher Education Institutions Initiative. After the success of the Pilot Call, the EIT’s HEI Initiative has announced in November 2021 a second Call for Proposals with the deadline for applications on 28 February 2022. Those HEIs that want to participate in the initiative shall test their capacity to spur entrepreneurship and innovation through HEInnovate, another example of initiative that we, the Commission, have developed in collaboration with the OECD.
The HEInnovate serve as a self-assessment tool that allow universities to test themselves against statements related to digitalisation, internationalisation, leadership or entrepreneurial capacity and thus better embed the universities in the innovation and industrial ecosystems. It provides extensive training and support materials, including practical case studies for helping HEIs to put in place best practices and recommendations.
Las but not least, the EIT education ecosystem provides unparalleled access to industry-proven learning content, training programmes, experts, ongoing research, educational technology or certification that can help the businesses grow in a rapidly expanding industrial markets. The European strategy for universities emphasizes the need to further support the EBA Academy for training, up- and reskilling the workforce in the battery industry value chain. This can serve as an inspiration for other sectors.
Women in Research & Innovation. Many improvements have been done, but what else can we do to increase their voice in Europe?
Indeed, the number of women among the world’s top scientists is growing. The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, two outstanding female scientists working in gene technology.
Marie Skodowska-Curie is clearly not alone any longer. According to She Figures data, women holding full professorship positions increased from 20% to 26% between 2012 and 2019. Do you think this figure is impressive? At the current rate, it could take 30 years for women to make up 4 out of every 10 professors in all fields.
One of my personal priorities is to promote gender equality in research and innovation. Gender equality provisions for Horizon Europe have been strengthened. We аre driving change by promoting gender-equal opportunities for researchers through the new eligibility criterion for each research organization to have a Gender Equality Plan in place. When an institution has such a Plan in place, it commits to carrying out a series of actions aimed at achieving gender equality.
We are also increasing the gender balanced participation throughout the programme. Our target is to reach 50% women membership in Horizon Europe – related boards, expert groups and evaluation committees. We have already managed to do so with the new European Innvoation Counci Board (EIC Board). I am also committed to ensure gender balance among research teams receiving Horizon Europe funding. To this end, gender balance is set as a ranking criterion for proposals with the same score. By monitoring practices and presenting data across staff categories, we already make the gender gap in academia and R&I visible.
Although it is critical to support female academics, significant efforts are also required in Europe’s innovation landscape. One of the most persistent issues in entrepreneurship is the gender financing gap. Female-led start-ups receive a disproportionately small share of global venture capital flows. In 2019, only 11% of seed-funding capital in emerging markets went to companies with a woman on their founding team, and only 5% of all later-stage funding went to companies with a woman on their founding team.
Despite overwhelming evidence that investing in gender-diverse teams leads to better business outcomes, this is still the case. What we are doing about it? Building on the fantastic EU Prize for Women Innovators, having recognized over 30 talented female innovators up to now, I launched the brand new Women TechEU initiative.
Women TechEU provides female founders with first-rate coaching and mentoring, as well as targeted funding to help them take their business to the next level! We received nearly 300 applications, and I anticipate announcing the 50 lucky winners in March.
Within EIC, women represent 42% of the business coaches that advise and mentor EIC supported start-ups. Since 2020, we also prioritise 25% women CEOs at interviews pitches. The prioritization is only applied to female applicants that have passed the first step of the evaluation by meeting all the criteria of Excellence, Impact and Implementation. This measure has stimulated an increase in the share of EIC funded start-ups with a female CEO from 8% to 29% and our target for this this year is 20%.
I believe that Europe should become the continent with the most women-led startups, but we have to start early. This means at early education stage. For instance, the project the ‘Girls Go Circular’ of the European Institute of Innovation and technology (EIT) is aimed at equipping 8000 schoolgirls aged 14-18 across Europe with digital and entrepreneurial skills. I want to multiply this kind of initiatives. We have the perfect momentum to do so with the European Year of Youth.
This year, more activities will target young women and girls, from primary and secondary education to young, early-stage career researchers and innovators. We need to work harder together with the EU Member States, stakeholders such as research infrastructures to promote female leadership and capitalise on the whole talent base in Europe. Our efforts in this direction will boost Europe’s growth and innovation.
The young generation is the main actor on the stage of societal challenges, from digital transformation to climate goals. How powerful is the effort to involve them on a range of science-related issues to build and reinforce excellence in research in Europe in addressing these challenges?
The current pandemic has highlighted the essential role of science, research and innovation in tackling current and future challenges. In this context, education, and in particular science education, is key. Equipping young people with knowledge and skills, making science education and careers attractive for young people, are essential to learn from current events and build more resilient societies. Students need to understand the way science and research affect their everyday lives. And today, we certainly need more young people who are motivated to study and pursue professional careers in science.
The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) support events that aim to popularise science and attract young people to research careers. In addition, the European Researchers’ Night demonstrates the impact of research on citizens’ daily life, with a specific focus on provoking the interest of young people in scientific studies and careers. There is also Science is Wonderful! ,which is a public exhibition organised every year by the European Commission. It highlights MSCA research projects and their impact and value on people’s daily lives.
The 2021 edition introduced “Science is Wonderful! Digital”, an online platform with a variety of educational materials and activities created by the EU-funded research projects and covering several areas, from the Life Sciences, Chemistry and Physics to Information Science and Social Sciences. This permanent digital exhibition will serve as a repository of pedagogical activities developed by MSCA projects, and remains available around the year.
Furthermore, teachers and pupils had the opportunity to meet online with MSCA researchers during the week-long event “Science is Wonderful!Live”. Almost 500 MSCA fellows, coordinators and alumni of all research fields exchanged bilaterally with school classes, in their own language, during the Science is Wonderful! Live event (on 22-26 November 2021). A series of live workshops covering all areas of research were also organised.
“Researchers at Schools” is another initiative in this area, which we will be launching this year. As of 2022, Researchers at Schools, organised under the European Researchers’ Night, will bring researchers to schools to encourage interaction with pupils at all levels of primary and secondary education, in EU Member States and Horizon Europe Associated countries. Students will have a direct access to research projects, which deal with topics such as food, and nutrition, healthy lifestyle, oceans, climate change and sustainable development, health, and other fields addressing the EU priorities related to the European Green Deal.
The initiative will support teachers in developing a scientific approach around different topics and allow pupils to meet with researchers. It will create a learning opportunity for pupils and allow EU-funded researchers, and notably MSCA researchers, to showcase their projects and engage in interactive ways with young audiences. By bringing science to schools, the initiative strengthens the connection between research and education, between science and European citizens. All these events can make science and research more concrete, tangible, and accessible to the young Europeans.
Young generations should not be seen only as citizens of the future, but as actors of the present: we need to take this into account and adopt forward-looking approaches. The Commission, through its Joint Research Centre, has involved young people all over Europe to collect data on how they see their future. Other initiatives explore the impact of the use and development of artificial intelligence on children’s rights. Young people are the best placed to understand their own needs. This is why participatory research methods like these are pivotal to develop excellent science.
In order to develop excellent in research, we need quality data. The JRC project “Mapping youth data” supports an evidence-based approach to policies and programmes, in particular the Youth Action Plan of the EU’s External Action. It does so by giving a global overview of data on youth, including mapping relevant indicators for understanding young people’s lives around the world and assessing the availability, relevance and suitability of data for tracing how young people’s lives are changing over time.
Excellence in research means also identifying the skills and competences needed to tackle the challenges our youth is facing in today’s digital society and economy. The transversal competence frameworks – DigComp for citizens, EntreComp for entrepreneurial competences, LifeComp for personal and social ones – describe and define the competences youngsters need to acquire to face such challenges.
Europe needs the vision, engagement and participation of all young people to build a future that is greener, more inclusive and digital. This is why we decided to make 2022 the European Year of Youth. With this proposal, we are striving to give young people more and better opportunities for the future.
The European Year of Youth should bring a paradigm shift in how we include young people in policy and decision-making. The objectives of the Year are to listen, engage and promote concrete opportunities for youth. One of these opportunities could be to involve them on a range of science-related issues to build and reinforce excellence in research in Europe. For example, the new “Researchers at Schools” has a huge potential to convey the messages underlying the Year and engage with young people. It has also been included as one of the initiatives, part of the Year of Youth flagship initiatives, which aim to provide more opportunities for young people to gain the knowledge and skills they need to move forward with confidence.
In 12 months’ time, we want to see meaningful policies that leave a lasting impact on young people’s lives. We want this Year to lead into concrete actions that will last well beyond 2022.