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After Horizon 2020: Envisioning a new kind of impact by linking research, innovation and education

As Europe decides how to best invest in the future of research and innovation, it is clear that Horizon 2020’s successor will need more funding. It is also quite certain that its design must be more efficient and simple in its bureaucratic burdens. However, what might be less obvious in our journey to improve the next EU Framework Programme is the potential impact that lies in strengthening links between research, innovation and education

At the European University Association, we know that universities play an essential role in educating the highly-skilled people who are much needed in all sectors of the economy. They perform ground-breaking research that leads to innovation, and, increasingly, they drive activities such as spin-offs, technology transfer and civic engagement. University innovation hubs and spin-off companies, for example, are important tools in transforming scientific results into the innovation that we need and in renewing our economy. Behind this are research and doctorate programmes generating the latest scientific knowledge. However, better links between these kinds of activities and education, for example in master’s programmes, are needed for Europe to fully capitalise on this talent.

One way to do this in the next Framework Programme is to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of students, for instance, by leading them through example. In practical terms, researchers could be encouraged to further share their project expertise and experience with students through teaching and training activities. This would give the research a double impact: on the one hand it has the potential to translate into innovation, on the other it would become useful learning material.

This could be done through special EU grant agreements allowing researchers, for example, funded through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the European Research Council, to engage in teaching and to include these activities in their time sheets. By putting grantees in contact with students in such a way, we would create natural multipliers of scientific excellence and research values and allow researchers to become the inspiring role models that the next generation of researchers clearly needs. A step like this would foster human talent, the natural driver of innovation.

While excellent research that produces innovation is the main objective of the Framework Programme, we must remember who is, in fact, conducting the research. Often, the people behind the projects are Europe’s doctoral candidates and, therefore, they cannot be ignored – especially in our quest for new and diverse forms of impact. A simple step in strengthening the link between research, innovation and education, would be to allow doctoral candidates funded under the programme to have a time extension. The standard three-year duration for doctoral studies is often too short, especially if involving interdisciplinary and international activities and teaching. Doctoral candidates could use the extension either to complete their research project or, better, to create links with industry and business – and to better exploit their research results. In the long term, this would benefit the sustainability of doctoral education as a whole and foster enduring bonds with industry and business.

Last but not least, intensifying multidisciplinarity in the next Framework Programme will be paramount. The STEM disciplines alone cannot solve the complex societal challenges our continent faces. We need to embed expertise in social sciences and humanities, as well as the arts, in projects addressing energy, climate change, poverty, ageing societies, migration and extremism. Tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the next Framework Programme will naturally also require an innovative, multidisciplinary approach that encompasses deeper links between research, innovation and education. Horizion 2020’s successor must therefore incentivise crossover between and among these disciplines if we really want to produce results that will make a difference in our lives.

Long-term public funding, such as that provided by the Framework Programme, is crucial in supporting the research that stimulates the innovation we need. However, the recipe requires a good link between research, innovation and education policies to hit the maximum score in boosting the development of excellent human talent. If Europe wishes to lead innovation globally, and see big results at home, this kind of strong and ambitious link must be at the top of the agenda. 

This editorial was first published on Open Access Government, issue May 2018, page 152

Lidia Borrell-Damián

Lidia Borrell-Damián is Director of Research and Innovation at the European University Association 

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