The European Association of Research and Technology Organisations, EARTO, is the member association for European research and technology organisations, RTOs. Founded in 1999 and based in Brussels, it promotes the interests of these organisations in relation to decision-makers in the European Commission, the European Parliament and other stakeholders and institutions concerned with policies for research and innovation in Europe. EARTO has approximately 80 members, among them RISE Holding and its group companies SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Swedish ICT Research and Swerea. The members represent about 350 RTOs.
"We have a double mission", says Chris Hull when ri.se meets him in Brussels in the end of May. "The first part is to track and influence European policy on applied research and similar matters in the interest of our members. The other part is internal networking within the association. That’s not so much about scientific or technical subjects, it’s more on subjects that are of general interest to the members and in particular subjects that should interest the corporate management of the RTOs. For example we have working groups on things like managing a portfolio of spin-off companies, on licensing out technologies and on working with small and medium enterprises, SMEs. The point of these workshops or working groups is to give members an opportunity to benchmark themselves against each other – to see what the others are doing, get ideas for new services or approaches they might offer themselves, compare experience and so on."
At EARTO headquarters in Brussels, Chris Hull has the help of a handful of colleagues who assist in monitoring current events and preparing policy positions, but establishing the concept of RTOs in the minds of people has not been an altogether easy task. Before EARTO started in 1999, Chris Hull had already been working with European innovation and R&D policies for several years and found that people within the same field of interest were almost literally walking past each other on the streets of Brussels to no avail.
"It was basically about names. You had all these research institutes defining themselves differently: public research organisations, contract research organisations, collective research organisations, research associations, technology centres, what have you… They all had different labels, most of which were derived from the way they perceived themselves in their national framework. So, we created a category called Research and Technology Organisations and marketed it by saying that ‘we are not business and we are not universities, but there are quite a lot of us, so we must be something important’."
"Having one label for what we are was, and is, essential for being heard, Chris Hull continues. "The concept of RTOs hasn’t fully been recognised systematically yet, but you see it now popping up more and more in European Commission policy papers, and people from the Commission and elsewhere refer to RTOs when they make speeches."
Chris Hull exemplifies how far EARTO has come by revealing that EARTO will be one of five stakeholders co-signing a joint statement on the European Research Area (ERA) in the presence of the Research and Innovation Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. The others are Science Europe, the network of national research funding agencies; Nordforsk, the research funding organisation of the Nordic Council of Ministers; the European University Association (EUA) with 800 universities as its members and LERU, a network of the 21 major world-class research universities in Europe, among them Lund University in Sweden. The statement was eventually presented on 17 July.
"This is recognition that we are being perceived as important and that wouldn’t have been possible probably even five years ago", he says.
The idea of RTOs being something in between universities and enterprise has not been uniform for the whole continent, but rather a concept for northern and western Europe and that is for historical reasons, Chris Hull tells:
"Most countries in southern Europe weren’t particularly industrialised up until the Second Word War and in some areas not until more recently. And in central and eastern Europe the basic model during the Cold War was the academy institute outside the university sector. There, leading edge science and research were encouraged and performed mostly in the interest of the military. That era is now over, but the institutes are still there and need to make the transition to a new business model and convert themselves to RTOs in a western sense."
Is there still a struggle of attitudes concerning traditional academic research versus industrial research?
"If you talk to intelligent people on either side, they know that the other side needs to exist", Chris Hull says. "But there are conflicts and they keep coming back. We may well see them in the next few months in the discussions over the Horizon 2020 programme, because the Commission has made a proposal for 80 billion euro. The European Parliament asked for 100 billion, but some people are saying we’ll be lucky to get 60 billion. And it will be the finance ministers of the EU-countries who will have a major voice in this, not the research ministers. My point is that if it’s less than 80 billion euro at the end of the day, it means that what the Commission has proposed is no longer possible. In that case, there will have to be cuts somewhere and everybody will be busy defending their corner and we’ll be back to the traditional arguments between academic and applied research."
Fears of less money for Horizon 2020 aside, Chris Hull points out that EARTO being a co-signer together with prestigious university associations is a clear sign that industrial research and applied science is taken seriously by political decision-makers. Being blended in with the likes of EUA and LERU helps in promoting RTOs:
"One must never forget that practically all of the people who work in the European Commission and the European Parliament, and the members of the European Parliament, have been to university. If you say ‘university’, they immediately have an image of what you are talking about. And since they usually had good fun at university, they have a positive image of what you are talking about. Now, if you say ‘RTO’, many of them still can’t really place it on their mental map. But we are getting there."