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Jean-Eric Paquet: Now more than ever, we need EU research and innovation to help ensure a sustainable future

Jean-Eric Paquet: Now more than ever, we need EU research and innovation to help ensure a sustainable future

Interview with Jean-Eric Paquet, Director-General of DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission

Jean-Eric Paquet has been Director-General of DG Research and Innovation since 2018. In this interview, he outlines the key events and announcements to be made during the European Research & Innovation Days 2021, talks about the role of R&I in the EU’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the future of digitalization and the Green Deal.

Mr Paquet, you are a key member of the Commission’s team organising the Research & Innovation Days 2021. Please tell us what will be different this year and what are your goals?

Now more than ever, we need EU research and innovation to help ensure a sustainable future. Working together will help us in the coronavirus recovery as well as pave the way to a greener and more digital future.

Through its virtual and interactive approach, the European Research and Innovation Days present the key opportunity to jointly discuss our steps forward and address the importance of investments in research and innovation across Europe. The Member States of course play a key role in this.

Furthermore, we will mark the start of Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion EU research and innovation programme for 2021-2027 and cover the future of the new European Research Area. I am also especially keen to visit the brand-new virtual European Research and Innovation Exhibition.

It will showcase over 100 EU-funded projects that make an impact on our lives and are shaping our world. Overall, I hope we can have meaningful policy discussions, take away new insights and plan our joint way forward.

Speaking of Horizon Europe, how do you plan to mark the occasion of the launch of this ambitious research and innovation programme?

Indeed, I am proud to say that Horizon Europe is now fully up and running, as on 15 June we adopted its main work programme with €14.7 billion in funding for the period 2021-2022. To mark the occasion, the 2021 European Research and Innovation Days will be the moment to discuss the new programme amongst policymakers, researchers, innovators and citizens.

Moreover, to help potential applicants, we set up a so-called Horizon Village at the event. Through 15 virtual thematic ‘houses’ covering all parts of the new programme, participants can hear first-hand from Commission staff about the new features, structure and funding opportunities.

Furthermore, dedicated Horizon Europe Information Days will take place between 28 June and 9 July. I encourage all top innovators and researchers to explore Horizon Europe and to bring their great ideas to life.

Earlier in June, the Commission launched 11 new Horizon Europe partnership projects. What challenges are they supposed to address and how will you cooperate with the industry to do this?

We have designed our overall portfolio of European Partnerships to be aligned with the Commission’s and the EU’s overall policy objectives: the European Green Deal, Europe’s Digital Decade and, most recently, also health. The eleven Partnerships launched are partnerships between the Commission and the private sector.

These partnerships will pursue innovative solutions on a large scale to address our major challenges, for example tackling emissions from energy-intensive industries and hard-to-decarbonise sectors, such as shipping and steel-making. Furthermore, they will also develop and deploy high-performance batteries, sustainable fuels, artificial intelligence tools, data technologies, robotics, and more.

The idea is to support and perform research and innovation together – private industry and EU – to develop solutions to achieve commonly agreed objectives. A Memorandum of Understanding is the basis for the cooperation in a Partnership. It specifies its objectives, the commitments from both sides and the governance structure.

The Partnerships also provide the Commission with input on relevant topics to be included in the Horizon Europe work programmes. Implementation runs first and foremost through the Horizon Europe work programmes and their calls for proposals.

Additionally, private partners also develop additional activities, which are not funded through Horizon Europe, but which are included in the Partnership's Strategic Research and Innovation Agendas. These additional activities focus on issues such as market deployment, skills development or regulatory aspects.

From your perspective, what will be the role of research and innovation in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Commission has been at the forefront of supporting research and innovation and coordinating European and global research efforts. We have been focusing on vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, translating research findings into public health policy, and supporting infrastructures and resources that enable key scientific advancements.

In the long term, research and innovation will be crucial not only to spur economic activity in the recovery, but also to accelerate the transitions that our planet and society need, building a new economy for health and well-being in a broader sense. Horizon Europe will be front and centre to deliver on our objectives and fast-forwarding us towards a green, digital and resilient future.

For instance, it will mobilise resources to speed up the transitions through EU missions and aforementioned European Partnerships to support the alignment of national strategies and industrial investments towards common EU objectives.

Furthermore, the renewed European Research Area will promote an environment for research and innovation that is up to the times. Under this initiative, the Commission proposes targets for R&D investment, including the 3% target of public and private investment in relation to GDP. This has proven its role as an aspirational goal that helped sustain R&D efforts throughout crises.

Moreover, the EU´s Recovery and Resilience Facility, with nearly €675 billion, provides a unique opportunity for the EU and its Member States to strengthen their policy coherence and joint efforts. EU Research Ministers are calling for Recovery and Resilience Plans to include significant research and innovation investments and reforms to address persistent challenges and to bridge the innovation divide between EU Member States.

For example, they may be used to help innovative SMEs and start-ups to cover the costs of developing their innovations and bringing them to the market, as well as for scaling up. To increase the effectiveness of the support, Member States may join forces in transnational projects - for instance in the field of hydrogen and renewable energy. These are only examples, and there is ample scope to embed research and innovation in national recovery strategies.

How about digitalisation and the Green Deal?

Together, they are the key drivers behind the ongoing ecological, social and economic transformation of our societies and economies. As outlined by President von der Leyen in her 2020 State of the European Union Address, the European Green Deal and the EU’s Digital Strategy constitute the cornerstones of the Recovery Plan for Europe.

Twenty percent of the funds under the Plan will be dedicated to the EU´s digital transformation. This will help to close existing investment gaps with the EU’s main competitors; for example, €20 billion in public and private investments per year is needed to foster Artificial Intelligence development in the EU; €6 billion per year on digital green technologies; €5 billion per year on digital innovations/Data and Next Generation Internet, to name just a few.

Digital transition, I would like to underline, is not only about capacity building in digital technologies, but more importantly, it is the transformation of other industries using digitalisation as an enabler. Furthermore, both green and digital elements were for example part of the last call of Horizon 2020 - the European Green Deal call. It included a dedicated topic for the creation of a digital twin of the ocean, within which it will support a successful proposal with €17 million.

I would also like to stress that climate neutrality by mid-century will simply remain out of reach without greater investments in research and innovation. Today, some 75% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions are linked to the energy system and 25% to transport. Moving towards clean energy and sustainable mobility is key to achieve the European Green Deal’s objectives.

I am happy to mention that Horizon Europe will devote at least 35% of its funding to climate action. More specifically €15 billion will be invested in accelerating the green and digital transitions through a cross-sectoral research and innovation cluster on climate energy and mobility.

Within clean energy, our priority is to invest in sustainable and affordable energy solutions for all. We are betting on renewable energy, and in particular hydrogen, as a viable alternative for the future. For example, the new Clean Hydrogen Europe Partnership will invest €1 billion in clean hydrogen research and innovation. We are also transforming transport into a zero-emitting sector. We are doing this by integrating circularity by design throughout Horizon Europe for example through more connected and automated mobility solutions and a move towards alternative fuels including hydrogen for our planes, ships, trains, trucks and cars.

Horizon Europe has a key role to play, in full synergy with other Programmes, in enabling the deployment, uptake and roll-out of research and innovation activities. To help bring about the necessary technological changes required by the twin digital and green transitions, Horizon Europe will put breakthrough innovation at the centre of the EU’s research and innovation policy.

To this effect, the European Innovation Council (EIC) was officially launched in March, allowing innovators to bring breakthrough technologies to the market and supporting small businesses to innovate on the larger scale. Yet technology alone is not the answer – Horizon Europe also emphasizes citizens’ engagement and social innovation. This is particularly important for digital and climate transitions where lifestyle changes, behaviour, and human agency are crucial.

Finally, what should our readers expect from Research & Innovation Days 2021 and why should they join you by registering for the event?

Expect the most ambitious European research and innovation flagship event with its immersive plenary sessions, workshops and networking opportunities. We have over 60 live sessions, with over 200 policy makers, researchers and innovators confirmed as speakers.

We dive into national and local angles, such as how cities and citizens play a crucial role when it comes to delivering on the ambitious goals of EU missions, or how regions and local authorities are at the forefront of the coronavirus recovery process.

There are simply too many insightful topics covered to list them all, but I invite everyone to check out the programme, register and join me in the conversation to shape future research and innovation together.

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