Dare to excel: making Europe a star in the research firmament

Last week, I was invited to give a talk at SwissCore, the Swiss contact office for European research, innovation and education in Brussels. They gave me the title ‘Dare to Excel’, and asked me to address the challenges of the European Commission’s upcoming next framework programme.


I took my lead from Aristotle, who said that excellence is achieved by what we repeatedly do. It is not a single act, but a habit won by consistency and dedication. With seven framework programmes to its credit so far, I think Aristotle would have approved of the EC’s track record so far. But excellence is no friend of complacency, and the EC is right to strive for improvement.

In my opinion, the EC plays a vital role in supporting European science. Its role should be to supplement and build on national programmes, not to replace them, and this is something that the framework programmes have done well. One area in which the EC can improve is, perhaps surprisingly, by allowing some projects to fail without becoming stigmatised; not necessarily the large flagship projects, but imaginative projects in their early stages. Such an approach would encourage more innovative thinking, ultimately leading to greater returns. Most vitally of all, however, EC funding, like all public funding, should ensure the sustainability of basic science over the long term, and thereby underpin the virtuous circle of innovation that links basic and applied science.

Another area where the next framework programme can make a real difference is in becoming more inspirational for a wide public. In an increasingly science-dependent age, society is becoming dangerously apathetic, and sometimes hostile, to science. It’s important for science to become more fully integrated into society, and through the framework programmes, the European Union can play an important role in achieving that ambition.

As a starting point, I suggested that rebranding the framework programmes with a more motivational title might be a good place to start. My suggestion? Supporting Technology  And Research in Europe: STAR Europe. I was quite pleased with that idea, until someone pointed out that the Commission had already had the same idea and run a competition for a new name as part of a broad consultation on what should be in the next programme. Apparently, I’ve missed the deadline, but what’s important is that through its open engagement with the community for feedback, criticism and input to the next framework programme, the EC is already daring to excel in science, technology and innovation.

Rolf Heuer