Q: Commissioner, 22 December saw the launch of the first calls for proposals for the EU‘s new research programme, FP7. Why was that a big day for you?
A: I think it is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows that the EU is working, and capable of delivering a major programme like this on time. When you think that we only had an agreement on the budget in May of this year, so couldn‘t properly start the legislative proposal till then, it is something near a miracle, what we have achieved. I think we did it because there was agreement across the board – within the Commission and the Parliament and all the Member States – that the aims of the Seventh Framework Programme are just too important to ignore.
And that‘s the second reason why today is important. Europe needs research. If our businesses are to remain competitive in the global marketplace, if we are to face up to challenges such as climate change, or the ageing of our population, then we need to know more and be better. We don‘t have natural resources, we care about our environment and we treasure our social systems. So our best hope for keeping one step ahead of the rest of the world is our brain power.
Q: How much money is being made available with these calls for proposals and what sort of projects are you looking for?
A: We are launching calls for proposals for FP7 in 42 areas today, representing about €4 billion. We are looking for projects to be suggested in all sorts of areas – developing the research potential of Europe‘s poorer regions, supporting researchers who want to work in another country, research to help small companies. We are also looking for projects in specific thematic areas. This could be something like combating stroke, from the Health theme, tools for controlling infectious animal diseases, from our food, agriculture, fisheries and biotechnology theme, or low resource consumption buildings, from our environment theme. But we don‘t have specific ideas – we indicate the theme and then it is up to the research community to form partnerships and come up with really good ideas in that specific area.
This call for proposals also sees the beginning of the European Research Council. This is a new element in FP7 and gives Europe, for the first time, a body dedicated to supporting the best research out there that pushes forward the frontiers of our knowledge. The ERC‘s Scientific Council – the men and women from the scientific community that are steering the ERC – have decided that the first year should be dedicated to starting investigators, that is, researchers at the beginning of their career. I‘m really excited about the ERC, and how it can help Europe build its knowledge base.
Q: So what happens next?
A: Each call for proposals will indicate a deadline by which we need to receive the proposals. Once that deadline has passed, all the proposals are examined by independent evaluators. These are scientists from across Europe and also outside, who are able to evaluate how the projects correspond to our three main criteria: the quality of the science (obviously the most important), the intended impact of the project and the means of implementing it. On the basis of this independent evaluation, the best projects are identified and then the Commission and the project team agree a contract, and the funding starts.
Q: What do you think Europe will get out of this programme?
A: If we achieve what I think we can, then by the end of FP7 we will be leading the world in a number of new technologies, such as low emission buildings. Our pharmaceutical industry will be producing new therapies for some of the major diseases and illnesses we face today, like cancer or influenza. We will be helping developing countries with technologies for things like water purification, or finding new ways to flight illnesses such as HIV and malaria. We will be reducing the polluting effect of coal and other fossil fuels through carbon capture and storage, and exporting this to the rest of the world. And maybe the ERC will help us again a few more Nobel prizes along the way!