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Interview of Professor Spiros Pantelakis, Chairman of the EASN Association

Professor Spiros Pantelakis, Chairman of the EASN Association, shares his thoughts on the implementation of H2020 in Aeronautics.

Q.: We have already the 2 first H2020 transport calls behind us and we are soon expecting the publication of the 2016-2017 work programme. What would you say has changed in H2020 with respect to FP7?
Sp.P.: The first major change we have seen in H2020 with respect to FP7 is the introduction of the 2-stage submission scheme in the Aviation call. In principle, this can save literally thousands of person-hours which are spent in preparing proposals (and to a large extent wasted, in case the proposal does not receive funding). However, this has led to the submission of a very large number of proposals during the 1st stage, with respect to the available budget. Furthermore, the number of proposals which qualified to the 2nd stage submission were about fivefold of what could be funded.  So to the end, I am not convinced that the 2-stage submission scheme has been as efficient as one would expect.
The second major difference is the nature of the called topics; they were very open and without specific targets. This led, for example, to proposals dealing with the development of NDT methods having to compete against proposals dealing with innovative training methods for ground personnel. Undoubtedly both these are of interest, but who is to judge which is most important for the long-term competitiveness of European Aviation?

Q.: It is often stated that H2020 is all about impact. At the same time, EASN has always supported fundamental, long-term and innovative research. Do you feel that these two are in conflict?
Sp.P.: I would say that it is more correct to state that H2020 is all about short-term, direct and measurable impact. In this sense yes, academic fundamental research may not be appropriate to demonstrate significant short-term impact. On the other hand, upstream academic research is usually high-risk and focuses on long-term innovation. In my opinion, only through true innovation we may expect significant impacts in the Aviation sector. 

Q.: So should we expect no real innovation in Aviation within H2020?
Sp.P.: In theory, H2020 could be fertile ground for innovation. Low TRL research is supported and stated in specific topics of the calls. However, in practice I do have my concerns. As you know, in a proposal one needs to convince about the impact his project will have and this should be done in a quantifiable manner. For example, there is a lot of academic research activity on energy-harvesting materials. Such materials are able to recover energy from vibrations and, under the right circumstances, this energy could be used to provide additional power to an aircraft in flight and reduce the need to burn fuel for producing electrical energy on-board. However, this technology is still at very low TRL and it is practically impossible to predict how efficient it can be. Surely, one can make theoretical studies to try and foresee the benefits but this is neither reliable, nor is an easy task to be done in the frame of preparing a research proposal. Also, for a reliable assessment of the potential impact one would need to take into account issues related to the manufacturing, assembly, wiring, certification etc. Such data is certainly not available to the average Academic. And to add to this, how can someone predict, for example, the potential social impact such as the potential new jobs that can be created from the development and implementation of such technologies? 
Then it is obvious that collaboration between Academia and Industry is a must. Isn't that what collaborative research is all about?
This is exactly the backbone of collaborative research. But again, there are some practical issues which need to be taken into account. All major European industries have their research agendas. Of course they are interested in new innovative technologies and participating in collaborative research activities, but only once the technologies under development have proven their application potential. In the times we are living, they are not willing (and this is normal) to invest time and money in every "crazy" idea which, if successful, may only have a return on the investment in some decades. Taking also into account the very low rates of funded proposals, this makes Industrial partners even more reluctant to participate in truly innovative, high-risk project proposals.

Q.: I am sure you are aware of the fact that there are other tools in H2020 to support such activities. Are these not suitable for upstream research?
Sp.P.: You are right. There are some excellent tools which support high-risk research initiatives and Academics are turning more and more to these. However, one cannot focus his research on technologies dedicated to aviation as this would narrow the scope of the proposal and limit the already very limited chances for being funded. In this way, innovation is being abstracted from Aviation, which has been traditionally an area which produced innovative technologies which were then migrated to other industrial sectors. We are now witnessing the exact opposite effect where technologies developed in other sectors are being imported into aviation.  It is no wonder that the image of an aeronautics related career is not considered very appealing to youngsters and excellent minds are being attracted by other professions.

Q.: As a conclusion, what is in your opinion the recipe for a successful proposal in H2020?
Sp.P.: As stated, it is a recipe which needs to combine several ingredients in the right quantities. First of all, when starting the process of preparing a proposal one should be prepared and willing to spend a considerable amount of time on it. At first, the scope and expected impact of the topic should be carefully studied and one should ensure that the intended project covers these requirements. Then, a competent consortium should be put together, able to carry out the envisaged tasks to the highest possible standards. Once that is done, the partners should start working on the proposal which should be a clear, well written document, without excess information aiming to convince the reviewers that the proposal deserves the EU taxpayer's money and will make a difference. Finally, there are some "hints and tips" which can always help to improve the proposal, such as having it reviewed by a competent external individual, with experience in the EU evaluation procedure. This, along with further advice and best practices is one of the services which EASN offers to its members.

Date posted: July 20, 2015, 9:40 am

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