Excellence must be the focus as the European Union decides its funding in the field of research and innovation, a leading Conservative MEP for the Eastern region insisted this week.
Vicky Ford, Conservative MEP for the East of England, and Conservative spokesman on research, was speaking as the European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy Committee voted through a package of reports on Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation for 2014-2020. Mrs Ford has led negotiations for the Parliament's European Conservatives and Reformists group on the package of reports.
Horizon 2020 is the successor to Framework Programme 7 and brings together existing EU funding streams for research and innovation into one programme. It has a proposed budget of €80bn (which is still under negotiation) and sets the priorities for EU funding for research into sectors such as health, energy, transport and food security.
Mrs Ford said one of the biggest challenges in Europe was bridging the so-called "valley of death" - the gap between successful research and driving viable ideas through to production and commercial sale.
She said: "We must help to turn good research into innovative solutions that can be brought to market. This is one of the priorities for Horizon 2020. Excellence must be at the heart of EU research and innovation funding so that money goes to the very best researchers. While we should ensure that regions which typically have not benefited from this funding are helped to build their capacity, this should never be at the expense of excellence.
"For example if one were awarding a grant for research on Parkinson's disease, the patient would want the money to go to the best possible research team, not the one from the region whose turn it was next for funding. Best does not necessarily mean the biggest name either. In my own region we have world-famous centres of excellence such as Cambridge University, but we also have many smaller and less well-known institutions which are equally advanced in their expertise.
"One of the main goals of Horizon 2020 is to simplify the process of applying for EU research money so that smaller centres and new applicants are not excluded. I proposed a new Commission Code of Best Practice which was adopted in the vote this week. This Code would ensure that participants are paid on time for the work they do - this sounds like a reasonable request but unfortunately there are currently often big delays before researchers are paid.
"The Code also requests that that the communications network in the Commission is transparent to participants and that they know who to contact if they have problems or complaints. Horizon 2020 must be easy to use for participants and it must be efficient and workable. Without this, we will only limit the ability of our very best researchers to find solutions to the biggest global challenges we face."
Mrs Ford fears Europe's long-term investment in research may be under threat in the latest round of wrangling over the EU's spending blueprint the multi-annual financial framework, but she said whilst there is room for substantial savings in EU spending, this crucial investment package must be protected. She explained: "The €80 billion proposed budget for science, research and innovation has not attracted much media attention. The political lobbying by angry farmers, transport officials and Eurocrats, each seeking to protect their own corners of the budget, poses a very high risk.
"The Horizon 2020 proposals cover a vast array of research and development, from pure science through to developing the industrial prototypes necessary to establish manufacturing facilities, from international breast cancer studies to designing more efficient, quieter aircraft engines, from finding disease-resistant crops to new battery technologies for next-generation motor cars. The academic grants programmes go right the way from high level laboratory leaders to those starting out on their first post graduate research project. This is one of the few areas where the UK gets back what it puts into the EU budget."
Mrs Ford recently prepared a 30 page study into the costs and benefits of EU research funding in the UK, including contributions from over 20 different universities, companies and research organisations.
While Mrs Ford voted for the Horizon 2020 package as a whole she did not support individual amendments from the Parliament on re-allocations of funding within the budget. She explains: "Colleagues have literally moved billions from one scientific challenge to others with no impact assessment. We call for evidence-based policy-making in Horizon 2020 but then don't practice it ourselves. I hope this, and the issue of supporting excellent science, can be sorted out during the upcoming negotiations between the Parliament, the Council and the Commission."
My Political Priorities
Economic Stability must come first. Without a strong economy we can not deliver a strong society. I work with businesses and consumers to keep Britain open for business, cutting red tape, boosting trade opportunities and helping to deliver jobs and growth for all.
I support Science and Research which is key to delivering better medical care, healthy food as well as the Innovation and Creative Industries which bring improved lifestyles for all our families.
Strong home Security is vital in today's uncertain world, which requires robust policing and defence and deep international relationships that we can depend on. I work with others to achieve this.
I care about the Countryside and the Environment and making sure that rural and urban communities flourish.