Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Pushing science beyond fiction
Future and Emerging Technologies Conference 2011 (FET11)
Budapest, 4 May 2011
Good morning everyone, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to this FET11 conference, hosted by the European Commission together with the Hungarian Presidency of the EU.
Today we often take Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for granted. It merges into the background fabric of our everyday lives. But without our self-imposed limits, ICT could do much more. And so this conference is about what ICT could do - if we want it to. It is about how science can go beyond fiction when it gets the right support.
From nanotechnology to global systems, from silicon chips to artificial brains, this exhibition and the projects behind it show the amazing possibilities of future and emerging technologies, or FET, in short. And I hope these FET will continue to inspire you long after this event.
Research & Innovation investment essential for economic recovery
But of course there is more to this than technological optimism. Across the European institutions we are constantly working to support economy recovery. Not just any recovery but the most sustainable one possible. This points us to the reality that even in times of austerity investments into new opportunities – like investments in scientific research – should be maintained and reinforced if we want to retain our living standards and global competitiveness.
There is much room for improvement. Even after great efforts to turn the situation around, Europe still invests only half as much as the US in ICT research. The EU2020 strategy's target of increasing research investments to 3% of GDP is a good reminder, and call to action, to really tackle this problem and close the gap.
At the most basic level it means recognising that we need to do more than write cheques for greater amounts. We must also co-operate better so that we are more effective with the money that is available. That is why the Digital Agenda is holistic and comprehensive. We are saying from year one onwards - from the Commission to universities to individual researchers - that we need new ways of working.
Alongside that we need to encourage all public and private stakeholders to increase their investments. To set the example, through the Digital Agenda I am aiming to double annual public investments into ICT research in Europe to 11 billion euros.
FET's key role in seeding innovation in ICT
Research always starts with an idea about how to do something new. But where do these ideas come from? Maybe Isaac Newtown really did discover gravity because of a falling apple. For most of us – and I don't dare to compare my ideas to yours – our ideas spring from discussions with others. Especially when two people with different expertise and a common interest come together. For instance, an engineer and a physicist or a physicist and a neuroscientist. FET strongly encourages such interactions from photonics to advanced robotics. This sort of cross-fertilising is how we can stop the ICT sector or ICT researchers erecting barriers around themselves. We have to stay as open and imaginative as possible; and in fact that is the goal behind this multi-disciplinary conference.
FET flagships – pulling together to lead the world
How can Europe meet citizens' expectations of a better quality of life over an extended lifetime? How can we address climate change or face global issues, for example clean energy sources or crisis management? ICT has key contributions to make here. And to get the best of it we need to join forces as Europeans. We do best when we work together to solve common problems. Different cultures, specialisations, and contexts give us a great backdrop to achieve the sorts of cross-fertilisations I mentioned before. But only if we work together.
The FET Flagships are the latest example of the Commission working to encourage and support this approach. In particular, they aim to improve today's insufficient transfer of research efforts to technological solutions and industrial applications. The ripple effects will be felt along the chain that leads from science to technology to education and society.
I invite you to join me later this morning for the launch of six FET Flagship preparatory actions that have been selected. They now have one year to build up their proposal for ambitious fully fledged long-term research endeavours.
FET – building up excellence in emerging domains
These FET flagships complement the FET-Proactive scheme which helps to give promising ideas and new domains critical mass so they can really undertake long-term, foundational and transformative research. It is usefully enhanced by networked initiatives in the European Research Area, such as the first joint funding call in quantum technologies.
Europe needs to nurture new ideas
FET has proven itself over 20 years. Bottom-up schemes designed for nurturing a large set of promising new ideas such as the FET-Open scheme are welcomed by the scientific community and are essential for keeping Europe at the leading edge of science and technology developments. The FET-Open scheme is a good model for a light and fast approach to public research funding of the sort we increasingly need for all research areas; not just the fast-moving world of ICT.
FET research is nurturing young talents
I would also like to draw your attention to two new FET initiatives. The first one pays particular attention to young researchers. Young researchers have an essential role to play in the 160 ongoing FET research projects, making FET an incubator of future scientific talents. The young researchers of today are part of the first generation of "digital natives" that I am very keen to associate more closely to the Digital Agenda. I rely on their, and your, creativity and dynamism to make every European digital.
The new FET Young Explorer initiative launched earlier this year is a modest but very concrete action in this context. It offers for the first time the possibility for small teams of young researchers across Europe to set-up their own collaborative FET research project. This initiative will further help our best young talent to get going, pursue their own ideas and explore new routes, possibly leaving more traditional approaches aside. I also see this as a concrete contribution to a culture of healthy risk taking, something that Europe is traditionally not so good at.
Today marks the launch of the FET-House, a web application to attract school leavers to a career in ICT research. It features mentoring from young European PhD students and you will be able to test it during the exhibition.
…and high potential small players
The second initiative recently launched by FET is targeting high-tech research-intensive SMEs. These knowledge intensive SMEs are few but hold a large innovation potential and deserve special attention. They have played a key role in the U.S. in the last thirty years and some of them have become today's leading global ICT players. Some of them are still highly research-intensive – as well as being market driven and customer centric. European research can produce breakthrough technologies but it often fails to transform them into global success stories. Obviously this initiative will not solve this European paradox on its own but it is designed to give an extra boost to this special breed of SMEs by targeting them directly with a call for research project proposals.
FET is recognised as one of the crown jewels of European research programs. You should all be proud of this. But remember that this also puts a duty on you to keep it shining.
To succeed we need both: to preserve the essence of what FET is, and never lose the courage to innovate. More than ever, Europe needs to invest in its digital future and push science beyond fiction.
Let us help to pave the way for a new century of growth and prosperity for all of us. I count on your support to do so and you can also count on my support. I wish you a successful conference.