The Eureka Clusters Programme (ECP) is coming out of a restructuring phase where there was a lot of pressure on the Clusters themselves to become more flexible and responsive, against a promise of more investment and more support for the industry and community research and collaboration needs. At this point it is useful to see how we are progressing and if we are achieving our goals.
From the Clusters side we have shown great flexibility and adaptability by running joint thematic calls for topics that were identified as common interest. However, despite this the major expectations the Clusters had from the renewal have not emerged yet. We expected that the joint calls would be new topics that would generate new budgets and increase the investment overall in the Cluster activities, but to date, we have not seen this in reality. In fact, many Eureka member public authorities admit they are funding the new joint calls from the existing Cluster budgets with no additional funding being generated.
The problem here is that we are then, in effect, just increasing the number of calls to be managed and therefore the number of reviews, assessments, funding decisions, etc., for what is effectively the same size programme. Clearly it is not a long-term strategy to keep increasing the costs of operation without seeing any increase in the volume and value of the programme. So, we do need to do a progress assessment on the New ECP model and work out which parts are working and which parts need more attention.
From the Clusters perspective, one part that has not taken off is the expected high-level meetings between industry representatives and national authorities. It was foreseen that we could have strategic discussions that would lead to common ideas on the priorities and therefore a mutual commitment of both public authorities and industry to invest in the identified priorities of the moment. We are just not there yet. We need to get this dialogue going to stimulate the anticipated increases in investments.
Bigger is better
The other point of concern is that we have an increasing trend for smaller project proposals coming from the community. We need to see why this is happening and how can we motivate more substantial actions. One possible cause is that proposers are being conditioned by warnings of limited funding opportunities – so they ask for less, so the project ambition is reduced, so the public authorities are not impressed by the limited proposals, and we are in a downward cycle. Another suggestion is that proposals are shrinking, because resources are limited. However, this is only true if the proposals are moving away from the core needs of the industry. Industry players are simple in this regard in that they decide what they need to do for their future business and, if the project proposal is in line with their business goals, then they commit the necessary resources. But maybe we are coming back to the missing strategic discussion where the business needs and the national interests need to be aligned.
The Cluster commitment to flexibility has been proven by the joint calls, but this has introduced two concerns: the first is that the public authorities seem to have difficulties being equally flexible – it was really unfortunate that one public authority refused to support a project in a joint call, as it was proposed through a Cluster they did not support – this challenges the very basis of joint calls; the second concern is that the level of budget commitment to joint calls is such that the issues may be better addressed as recommended themes within the normal bottom-up calls of the Clusters.
The way forward
Whatever way we look at it, there is a clear need to strategically invest from both the national and the industry sides – but it must be done in a coherent way. There are several challenges in the new model that we must progress on, to get the additional value from the programme. It is now emerging that it will be necessary to have multiple national level meetings with the Cluster interests rather than the one common high-level meeting – or maybe both approaches need to run in parallel.
In any case, we must preserve and promote the essence of the extremely efficient and useful Eureka Clusters instrument. This, in essence, is the structure in which the proactive Cluster core groups, as the key industry players of their respective sectors, work in partnership with the Eureka public authorities to stimulate a set of bottom-up project proposals that capture the needs of industry, aligns them with the national interests and develops products and services for the benefit of both society and industry as a whole. The EUREKA Clusters Programme matters.