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Interview with Andrea Tilche, Acting Director DG Research & Innovation (Dir. I- Environment)

The Directorate supports the research and stakeholder community in the pursuit of goals which improve the European and the global environment, the environmental and climate policies and the competitiveness of European environment-related industries and businesses. This support consists of smart priority-setting in the preparation of Work Programmes, and the consequent funding of excellent and innovative research through the current Framework of Community Research. Interview with A.Tilche, EC-DG Research&Development


Could you briefly explain your daily activities at your Directorate What exactly is the role of your team?
How is the liaison with other programmes, units and directorates?

The Environment Directorate, of which I am responsible, is composed of several units dealing with specific subjects: Environmental Technologies, Management of Natural Resources – which includes the Earth Observation sector -, Climate Change and Natural Hazards. In addition, we are cooperating with the Communications Unit, as well as with other relevant DGs (DG ENVIRONMENT, DG CLIMA, DG ENTREPRISE, JRC etc) in order to ensure that new programmes address the most relevant policy needs and that project results may feed policy development and implementation.

How would you see the activities changing with the move from FP7 to H2020?

To remain globally competitive and improve EU citizens’ quality of life, Europe needs to rapidly improve its capacity of transforming research into products and services.

This has been at the heart of the Innovation Union, one of the flagship initiatives under the EU’s growth strategy, Europe 2020. The EU’s new research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, will be used to implement this initiative.

Compared to the past, Horizon 2020 will support all strategies of the innovation cycle, providing seamless and coherent funding from idea to market, through a natural integration and continuum between research and innovation. It will be implemented using measures which promote wider participation from industry and SMEs, and in combination with actions promoting the completion of a truly integrated European Research Area.

The support to research and innovation is seen as a key policy supporting the competitiveness of Europe, and no longer as a “funding agency” job. This radically changes our job into a much more strategic one.

How important is Earth Observation as a tool for projects under your responsibility?

FP7 projects have contributed to the development and strengthening of the European capacity to aggregate, access and develop global Earth Observation datasets and information products. These are essential for underpinning environmental research and innovation in sectors such as Climate Change, Biodiversity, Water, Land Use etc… More cross-cutting integration will be required in Europe in the period 2014-2020 in order to further advance the implementation and use of Global Environmental Datasets and the information that can be derived from them.

More specifically Research and Innovation is required in the following domains to support Environmental research and the development of models to predict the functioning of the various Earth Systems:
1) Developing technical solutions and applications to enable a full and open data sharing capability as advocated through the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) Data Sharing Principles and the EU Open Data Policy, to develop the required knowledge bases to address the Societal Challenges ;
2) Build the next generation information system, enabling sharing, discovery and full, open and unrestricted access to Earth Observation datasets, engaging with the private sector to leverage emerging technologies and develop services, and citizens to develop citizens’ observatories, citizens governance, etc.;
3) Increase the robustness of global observation by strengthening and developing in- situ observation networks through the use of novel technologies.

The importance of Earth Observation for our activities is accounted for and demonstrated by a dedicated group that oversees the implementation of Community

Research and Innovation in the domain of Earth Observation, is the contact point for the International Group on Earth Observation, and cooperates with Copernicus and the Joint Research Centre on all Earth Observation related issues.

How do you see the flagship EC programme Copernicus contributing to the goals of DG R&I?

Addressing global societal challenges requires a thorough understanding of the Earth system, the underlying processes and their interactions. This will improve the forecasting of the future state of the environment, enabling us to sustainably manage fragile ecosystems and natural resources. Comprehensive, sustained and coordinated in-situ, airborne and space-borne EO data and its integration into a holistic modelling and analysis framework is a prerequisite.

For this, the following components are essential:

  • a data collection and dissemination infrastructure, ensuring data interoperability and consistency, based on agreed standards and supporting easy access to free, open and readily available data without any restrictions on its use;
  • a retrieval / modelling environment supporting the generation and operational provision of a range of societal benefit services allowing a continuous monitoring of the state of the Earth system and the prediction of its future evolution; and
  • a research framework supporting a continuous improvement and evolution of the system by utilizing re-analysis, taking into account of new data from scientific experiments and conducting observing system simulations to boost innovation.

Copernicus basically will cover the first two components and as such it is essential for addressing a range of societal challenges. In particular the launching of the Sentinel missions (the Copernicus space component) will represent a tremendous opportunity for the research sector as it is a unique programme that will have no equivalent at international level and that will deliver accessible Earth Observation Data that are strategic for the broad environmental research. Together with an appropriate research framework Copernicus will allow implementing policy monitoring tools and foster research to continuously improve the system.


How do you work with the rest of the EC (and particularly DG Enterprise) on the Copernicus programme?

The activities of DG RTD and DG ENTR regarding Earth Observation are very complementary. The work carried out under the GMES programme focuses on the delivery of services whereas the programs implemented under DG R&I are focussing on building the knowledge base necessary for the development of the services and also on new avenues regarding the in-situ monitoring of the Environment. In particular the Environment programme is delivering research and innovation products that are necessary for the development of Copernicus services. The different models that have been developed in the past FP and more specifically during FP7 are of utmost interest for the implementation of the Copernicus services in domains such as Climate prediction, Ocean Forecasting, Hazard preparedness and emergency management. Regarding new avenues to developing innovative systems to observe/monitor the environment 5 new R&D projects have been launched recently under the Environment program with a great potential to strengthen the in-situ component of Earth Observation Systems. These projects are based on the concept of Citizen Observatories and will take advantage of the latent capability in everybody’s mobile phone/tablet/laptop to monitor the environment. Also 2 topics have been included in the current joint call “The ocean of tomorrow” that will permit conducting research and innovation activities for the development of new sensors for the monitoring of the ocean. Both R&I activities, Citizen Observatories, and new Ocean sensors are direct contribution to the in-situ monitoring of the environment and to the Copernicus programme.


What do you look for in cooperative efforts between European Institutions and Industry? What type of dialogue mechanism could take place with the industry

Industry is a key to the development of Observing System as Observatories rely on cutting edge technologies spreading over several industrial sectors such as telecommunications, energy, new material, computing, etc. SMEs would provide their capacity to deliver new solutions for dedicated sensors, data processing, and new services. As indicated in my previous response concerning Copernicus a significant part of the resources of FP7 is dedicated to technology research. In those projects the participation of Industry and SME’s was encouraged in an active way. So a significant number of SME’s are already present in FP7 projects dealing with Earth Observation and monitoring that could in the future be involved in further system development and service delivery.

Regarding Horizon 2020, the involvement of the industrial sector will be ensured from the onset by making cooperative efforts mandatory. As indicated in the Commission proposal for the Societal Challenge Climate Action, Resource Efficiency, and Raw Materials the role of Industry should be central in the implementation of Horizon 2020,

In this context it is important that a dialogue takes place with the Earth Observation industry. In this respect, the GEO initiative is planning to set up at global level and Industrial Forum – this was a decision made at the last GEO Plenary meeting in Brazil in November 2012. The forum should be launched this year in view of developing a dialogue with the Private and Not-for-Profit Sectors. The rationale for the establishment of this forum is twofold 1) it would help understanding how the private sector could support the development of GEOSS 2) it would also be used to inform the private sector how it could benefit from the Earth Observation data collected through GEOSS.

How important is the role of industry in the DG R&I Environmental Research programme?

FP7 attaches great importance to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The Lisbon European Council, in 2000, set the ambitious objective for Europe to become the “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010”. A year later, the Gothenburg Council added an environmental dimension to this objective. Underpinning this strategy is the European Research Area, which recognises the importance of research-intensive SMEs for sustainable economic growth and employment in Europe.
Reflecting the desire to encourage them to take part in environmental and other areas of research, the aim for FP7 was to allocate at least an indicative 15% of the total EU funding of roughly €50 billion for 2007–13 to SMEs, and this objective is going to be largely achieved.

Should further measures be developed to encourage greater industry participation?

The Commission proposal for a council decision establishing the Specific Programme Implementing Horizon 2020 makes provisions for greater industry participation. With regards to this, I can only make reference to the Commission proposal regarding industry in Horizon 2020:

For achieving sustainable growth in Europe, the contribution of public and private players must be optimised. Horizon 2020 includes scope and a clear set of criteria for setting up public-public and public private partnerships. Public-private partnerships can be based on a contractual arrangement between public and private actors and can in limited cases be institutionalised public-private partnerships (such as Joint Technology Initiatives and other Joint Undertakings).

Particular attention will be paid to ensuring a broad approach to innovation, which is not only limited to the development of new products and services on the basis of scientific and technological breakthroughs, but which also incorporates aspects such as the use of existing technologies in novel applications, continuous improvement, non-technological and social innovation. Only a holistic approach to innovation can at the same time tackle societal challenges and give rise to new competitive businesses and industries.

For the societal challenges and the enabling and industrial technologies in particular, there will be a particular emphasis on supporting activities which operate close to the end-users and the market, such as demonstration, piloting or proof-of-concept. This will also include, where appropriate, activities in support of social innovation, and support to demand side approaches such as pre-standardisation or pre-commercial procurement, procurement of innovative solutions, standardisation and other user-centered measures to help accelerate the deployment and diffusion of innovative products and services into the market. In addition, there will be sufficient room for bottom-up approaches and open, light and fast schemes under each of the challenges and technologies to provide Europe’s best researchers, entrepreneurs and enterprises with the opportunity to put forward breakthrough solutions of their choice.


How do you see the planning and budgeting process in future programmes concerning EO?

As indicated earlier the Horizon 2020 Societal Challenge Climate Action, Resource Efficiency, and Raw Materials includes and action to: “Developing comprehensive and sustained global environmental observation and information systems”

The aim of this action is to ensure the delivery of the long-term data and information required to address this challenge. Activities shall focus on the capabilities, technologies and data infrastructures for earth observation and monitoring that can continuously provide timely and accurate information, forecasts and projections. Free, open and unrestricted access to interoperable data and information will be encouraged.

Now it is too early to indicate what kind of budgeting process will be attached to this action. However generally speaking the various Horizon 2020 activities will be planned following the Horizon 2020 specific program decision with a strong involvement of the member states and stakeholders. Continuous guidance will be provided through dedicated advisory groups representing stakeholders.

Will your Directorate be able to bring opportunities for the downstream service providers?

Absolutely! Let me give you an example. More research is needed to better understand the link between ecosystem functioning, biodiversity and its socioeconomic impact. A better knowledge of these links will allow predicting better the evolution of ecosystem services due to climate change. This will foster the development of downstream services for managing ecosystem services e.g. for air quality applications. There are many more examples like this. The direct involvement of the industrial sector from the onset of these activities will foster downstream services and spinoffs.

Are there further policies beyond Research & Innovation that you consider could be effective in helping the development of EO industry?

There is a range of policies and treaties which benefit from EO data given that appropriate monitoring tools are available. These are e.g. climate policies by supporting emission trading and deforestation policies (e.g. see UNFCCC’s REDD+ initiative), environmental policies – by e.g. monitoring ozone or waste and water quality – or transportation policies – by assessing infrastructures and their use -, just to give a few examples. EO industry will all benefit from their need for products and services derived from spatial data.

However, there is a single most effective policy from which EO industry would benefit. This is a free and open access to data with no restriction on its use. As demonstrated by many economic studies this will boost innovation and growth.

This opening of the Earth Observation datasets has been stimulated by the GEO initiative in which the Commission is an active member. In the 2010 Beijing Declaration, GEO Members committed to implement the GEOSS Data Sharing Principles by developing flexible policy frameworks that enable a more open data environment, and these Principles have influenced national and regional data policies, including INSPIRE and Copernicus in Europe and Landsat in the US, facilitating the uptake of Earth observation data by a wide range of user communities.

By promoting data sharing, Europe is able to deliver benefits to citizens throughout the world, including those in developing countries. And in return, Europe is able to derive benefits through the use of data shared with us by our partners in GEO.

Further, by making Earth observations freely and openly available, without any restrictions, we are able to stimulate the European service sector to develop new services and products. This leads to growth, job creation in Europe and the provision of societal benefits for European citizens.

Could you explain the role of EC at GEO as co-chair activity?

The European Commission is one of the 88 GEO Members and has been co-chairing the initiative since its creation, together with Co-Chairs from the USA, China and South- Africa. The Commission is represented in GEO by DG RTD.

The GEO initiative is of a strategic nature for the European Union, given its clear relevance to a number of important European policies in the area of sustainable development, environmental research and international co-operation. The EU is strongly represented within the GEO and is taking a leadership role in the development of the GEOSS, with the Commission very much to the forefront. The overall European approach to the GEO is co-ordinated through a High Level Working Group, which meets on a regular basis before GEO Executive Committee and Plenary Meetings.

The contribution of the European Union, coordinated by the Commission, to the GEO initiative is significant, including: the support given through the Space Theme of FP7 to GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), which is a major contribution of Europe to GEO; the contribution of the INSPIRE Directive (Infrastructure for Spatial information in Europe), which is a powerful tool to overcome the major barriers still impeding availability and accessibility to Earth Observation Data in Europe; and finally a major contribution from the FP7 Cooperation Environment theme in terms of R&D effort to provide GEO with research elements necessary to develop and implement the GEOSS.

How can GEOSS help the European EO services industries?

As the “G” in GEOSS stands for Global and as the major societal challenges that confront Europe today are global in nature, e.g., climate change, food security, etc. Europe needs to have access to global datasets to understand and address these challenges. And these can only be assembled “at a reasonable cost” within a global framework, as Europe does not have the financial capability to acquire all of the data it requires on a global scale using its own resources. Data sharing and access to data is one of the important keys. If our partners in GEO would not share their data with us, we would not have access to the global data Europe needs.

By promoting data sharing, Europe delivers benefits to citizens throughout the world, including those in developing countries. In return, we can derive benefits for Europe through the use of data shared with us by our partners in GEO. Furthermore, data sharing is stimulating the service sector by making Earth observations freely and openly available, without any restrictions, we allow the European service sector to develop new services and products. The European service industry will benefit from it. It will leads to growth and job creation in Europe and the provision of societal benefits for European citizens.

What are your views on the GEO decision regarding Engaging Industry Support in the Implementation of GEOSS?
EARSC along with the AAEO has written to the GEO secretariat proposing a stronger engagement between industry and GEO, do you support this and how could you see that working in practice?
GEOSS has been mentioned as being able to provide a “window” to display private sector capabilities and products. How would this work?

The Commission supports the decision made at the 9th GEO Plenary meeting to explore the possibility for further engagement of the private sector in the GEOSS implementation.

While the burden of investing in Earth observation infrastructure and data is generally carried by governments, there is a shared understanding that not only the public sector, but also the private sector benefits from increased data sharing, and from the exploitation of integrated Earth observations for the provision of societal benefits. In a world where public budgets are under increasing pressure, and where the private sector can increasingly benefit as users of Earth observations, GEO should define a suitable framework to allow and encourage private sector contributions to develop and grow GEOSS. Private sector engagement would bring additional expertise and resources in all domains associated with GEOSS development and to SBA-related services as well as additional political support for ensuring continuation of the GEO action.

From another perspective, the private sector also represents a big “consumer” of Earth Observation data and information. In this regard, its main interest in contributing directly to GEO would be to access GEOSS resources, both for provision of commercial services and for the provision of institutional services, under contract from governmental entities. GEO may also work as a multiplier of private sector R&D resources. GEOSS could be a “window” to display private sector capabilities and products and, for private companies, an operationally sustained GEOSS could represent a good opportunity to operationally run, on a long term basis, many of its components.


At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts on the future development of the EO geo-information service sector? Do you think the European Earth Observation activities are on the right track?
And In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the commercial earth observation industry is facing in the years to come? What kind of downstream service industry would Europe benefit from?

The challenge for the EO geo-information service sector depends on the easy access to regional and global Erath Observation datasets. The Commission has already laid the foundation for Europe’s participation in GEO in the period 2014-2020 with the proposal we made to the Parliament and Council for the next Framework Program for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020.

This includes, as indicated earlier, specific references to GEO, the GEOSS and an activity on “Developing comprehensive and sustained global environmental observation and information systems”, with the aim of ensuring the delivery of the long-term data and information required to address the societal challenges set out in Horizon 2020.

However, to ensure the support of the Council and European Parliament for both this proposal and for GEO post-2015, it is vital that we are able to demonstrate that the GEOSS has real substance and relevance to it, which means it must begin to deliver societal benefits to users.

The Council and Parliament will want to see that the GEO and GEOSS are working well, allowing Europe to contribute globally, but also bringing benefits to Europe.

So, for example, in the domain of data sharing, where Europe is making great efforts to open up its data and to share it with our partners in GEO, we also need our partners in GEO outside of Europe to share their data with us.

The biggest challenges ahead are making data consistent and interoperable and dealing with ‘Big Data’ at the same time. For this a close dialog between researchers, the service industry and the IT sector is needed for building the required infrastructures.

Downstream services supporting Green Economy and Blue Growth, both emerging industries within Europe, are in particular considered of great benefit.

And we will have to be able to demonstrate to our political masters that our investment in the development of the GEOSS, in data sharing and interoperability, does bring benefits by contributing to growth, job creation in Europe and the provision of societal benefits for citizens in Europe and across the globe.

Citizen Observatories©

EO-MAG -Interview with A. Tilche EC-DG Reserach & Development.pdf