Our society faces increasing and challenging economic, societal and environmental issues. The European Union looks to strengthen efforts in research and innovation (R&I) to help tackle them. More specifically, the ERA Policy Agenda with strategic actions for the period 2022-2024 aims to contribute to the priority of the a Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe (Pact for R&I) and overarching policy strategies, in particular for the twin transition and the deployment of EU missions in priority fields.
Transition of key industrial ecosystems
One particular action could contribute to the improvement of the R&I ecosystem by bringing in the private sector as a key actor with its role in upscaling critical technologies. As part of the priority of “tackling together the twin transitions” ERA Action 12 proposes to accelerate the transition of key industrial ecosystems. Indeed, the action states that “strengthening and accelerating the transfer of R&I to the economy is crucial for the EU to remain at forefront of the green transition in industry, including digital technologies and the avoidance of EU industrial dependencies in future green markets.”
In its efforts to tackle the emerging challenges, the European Commission launched two ERA industrial technology roadmaps that set up the paths for enabling scientific developments and upscaling of technologies in two main industrial sectors: i) low-carbon technologies in energy-intensive industries and ii) circular technologies and business models in in the textile, construction and energy-intensive industries. These roadmaps not only recognise the role of industries in developing technologies but also emphasise the importance of creating synergies within the R&I ecosystem that enables scale up of innovative solutions and facilitates the uptake at societal level.
In this context, researchers and businesses industry and SMEs in Europe need access to both, world-class research infrastructures (RIs) and technology infrastructures (TIs), which are integrated at EU, national and regional levels and which offer a coherent and complementary services to the research and business communities. While research infrastructures have been high on the EU policymaking agenda for the last two decades, advancing the innovation frontier in multiple areas, TIs are increasingly viewed as an actor that can strengthen collaboration with business.
Two sides of the same coin?
Both research infrastructures and technology infrastructures are important players in the European R&I ecosystem. Research infrastructures (under the Regulation establishing Horizon Europe) are defined as single-sited, virtual or distributed resources and services for the research communities to conduct research and foster innovation in their fields, essential to achieve excellence in R&I, unique in nature and open to external users. They include the associated human resources, major equipment or sets of instruments; knowledge-related facilities such as collections, archives or scientific data infrastructures; computing systems, communication networks and any other infrastructure. Technology Infrastructures are defined as facilities, equipment, capabilities and support services required to develop, test and upscale technology to advance from validation in a laboratory up to higher Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) prior to competitive market entry. They can have public, semi-public or private status. Their users are mainly industrial players, including SMEs, which seek support to develop and integrate innovative technologies towards commercialisation of new products, processes and services, whilst ensuring feasibility and regulatory compliance”. This definition proposed by the EC’s Staff Working Document implies that TIs are above TRL4, and mainly used by industry.
Both type of infrastructures should work close to the users (researcher, large industrial companies as well as SMEs) and understand their needs. Collaboration among these stakeholders could contribute to moving forward the technology frontier. Indeed, within the roadmaps, RIs are recognised as supporting the development of new breakthrough technologies, as well as scaling up of some innovative technologies. TIs are viewed as complementary by working along companies and users to develop protocols, foster sustainability such as minimising the use and recycling of critical materials, accelerating access to market, and facilitating the process of social adaptation to new technologies.
Seeking synergies in the years to come
However, many RIs also work with industry, thus creatin some confusion in the current discussions about RIs and TIs. Cooperation with industry is one of the missions of ESFRI RIs and is also highlighted in the Council Conclusions on Research Infrastructures (adopted in December 2021): “UNDERLINES benefits and impacts of public investments in RIs on industries, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and other relevant actors […]; EMPHASISES the importance of further development of capacities and services of RIs addressing private sector needs in order to strengthen European competitiveness.”
We have recently produced a report on cooperation of ESFRI Research Infrastructures (Landmarks) with industry contributing to the work of the ESFRI drafting group on Industrial Co-operation. This group was set up with the purpose of getting a better understanding of the collaborative relationships between RIs and industry (as RI user, collaborator or component provider), and to identify the areas where RI need further support in developing relevant guidance documents that would further enhance collaboration with industry. The results of the survey were further discussed at the 2nd ESFRI Stakeholder Forum Meetup, which took place on 27th September 2023. The questions discussed during the session of industry cooperation and interactions with TIs are likely to stay important for the coming years:
- What are the main challenges for RI-industry collaboration, and what are the key actions needed in terms of providing RI capacities and services needed by industry, e.g. legal framework, business models, quality assurance, user support etc.?
- What are the key actions needed to ensure complementarity of the activities of RI and TI in providing effective support to industry?
- How should HE WP 2025-2027 and FP10 address RI-industry collaboration and RI-TI complementarities?