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Interview of Eric Dautriat, executive director of the European Clean Sky Programme

Eric Dautriat, after leading the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking for 7 years, this September is moving on to a new chapter in his career. In this frame the EASN Association is pleased to host an interview where he shares his views and assesses the project's added value and impact.

Q1: Dear Eric, please allow me to start with a personal question. You have successfully guided Clean Sky Joint Undertaking since September 2009. After 7 years, this September, you are moving on to a new chapter in your career. What are your feelings?

I have been lucky in my career, which fully took place, so far, in the aerospace world, with a number of exciting jobs: in particular, when I was leading the Directorate of Launchers at CNES some fifteen years ago, with the responsibility of the development and qualification of the current Ariane 5 rocket. But I must say that Clean Sky gives me the impression to have been the most rewarding. together with my team and with the participants to the programme, I had the opportunity to build something from almost a blank page. Beyond that, I have always enjoyed working in a European environment, and what is better in the EU policy than Research?

I fully understand the need of a limited term a Director, in particular when you have been the founding one. Seven years is, from this point of view, enough! However, of course, beyond the unavoidable melancholy to leave this adventure, there are several strategic items that I would have liked to continue to work out. But this would never been ending!

Q2: After these years, what do you think are the main achievements of CS? What value it has added to the European Aeronautical community in terms of research and innovation and finally what has been the impact for the European economy?

Although most of them have been a bit delayed with respect to the initial schedule, almost all the demonstrators foreseen at the beginning are there, on ground or in flight, as expected - of course with the evolutions and re-orientations that you may expect in any research phase! I noticed how enthusiastic the transverse teams were, from the different horizons contributing to such achievements. The two largest: the Open Rotor (ground-based), and the Laminar Wing (in-flight), are still to come but I'm very confident in their success.

Beyond these many technical facts, I consider that the "innovation chain" composed of more than 600 participants in Clean Sky 1 is, in itself, a very positive achievement, a very strong asset. We need to put more emphasis on these hundreds of smaller projects, funded through the Calls for proposals, directly contributing to the demonstrators or not: most of them have an intrinsic value, a proper life, a potential for spill-overs, etc. The lower part of the iceberg is not the less important! Unfortunately, we at the JU are often missing such ex-post information about the destiny of a Clean Sky - funded project. Collecting such feedback would bring a lot to the knowledge we may have of our impact, and our ability to "advertise" the benefits of aeronautical research public funding.

Regarding the socio-economic impact, as you know, this is very difficult to establish. We are working on this. Making a forecast of jobs created in the aeronautical manufacturing sector thanks to Clean Sky is quite difficult; anyway it will remain mostly virtual until the Clean Sky technologies are actually implemented into products; this is beyond the remit of the JU, of course - but equally, evidencing such an outcome will become more and more expected (rightfully) by the policy-makers. Anyway, we should have a first analysis at the beginning of next year, as an input proposed to the mid-term assessment.

Q3: In the years to come, what will be the main challenges for Clean Sky 2 and what obstacles and difficulties will have to overcome? What about the balance between production of breakthrough technologies & innovation, and the integration of these in to flying products: what could be improved and what actions should be taken for that?

Clean Sky 2 is more than twice the size of Clean Sky 1. If I consider the current trend, we could reach more than 1000 entities involved. Managing this into complex demonstrators will be a challenge! In particular, we have far more consortia as Core Partners than we had in Clean Sky 1 as Associates: this is, to a large extent, good news because this shows that many newcomers will be allowed a stable and long-term involvement in the full programme - including many universities. But this will have to be closely managed, in a context where on-time delivery is important, because of the size and the complexity of the demonstrators.

It will also be essential to keep and when necessary increase, the technical ambitions of the projects. Clean Sky cannot be and must never prioritize short-term, incremental progress. We need to work on actual breakthroughs. Research is research, it means going beyond the state of the art.

I wish that we are able to keep enough flexibility to this very large programme; our activities are based on an exhaustive "Development Plan" describing the full content up to completion in 2024, but this plan is updated each year and it is essential to be able to include, during the course of the programme, new inputs, new ideas, without breaking the necessary stability needed for the big projects.

Starting in early 2017, we intend to implement calls focused on "thematic areas", complementing the quite prescriptive, "top-down" topic descriptions we are usually publishing. These areas will still be closely linked to the objectives of ITDs and IADPs (our "technological platforms"), with a "granularity" level like alternative use of rejected heat from engine power gearboxes, or future pilot interface modalities. The "whats" will be shortly described, and the "hows" will remain open. This should strongly enhance the opportunities for applicants to bring bottom-up inputs. And hopefully this will encourage breakthrough initiatives. We are currently working out the possible content and the process for such a call, with our Members.

In parallel, we are also considering how to improve the involvement of students, mainly PhDs, in Clean Sky projects, in particular (but not only) through SME-led projects. We are discussing this with Academia and experts, and I'm happy that you are actively participating as EASN! There is, of course, some link between these two initiatives, even if they are not identical.

Q4: I know, we both agree on the indispensable role of the academia. Do you feel this is properly reflected in the participation and the level of involvement of academia in CS2? What should be done as to support the academia to continue creating breakthrough technologies and long-standing innovations?

Yes, I confirm we do agree about this indispensable role! We have 114 academia involved in Clean Sky 1; 114 different universities, I'm not saying 114 faculties or departments. This is a lot! And in Clean Sky 2, they are now conquering important roles as Core Partners, often within small consortia. Indeed, there is more momentum now for Academia than ever. They apply, and they have a high success rate (as you know, by construction the success rate in Clean Sky is higher than in classical, collaborative research, thanks to the more precise character of the topics, which cannot be tackled by so many applicants). However, I do believe that Academia are not pro-active enough in this programme. As if they were considering the answers to CS calls as a side activity, while their main focus is with some other funding sources. Same for some Research Organizations. I think that a programme which should (if I extrapolate the CS1 figures) bring in the range of 500 mEuro to these two categories together deserves more than a "reactive" behaviour - just answering calls. Do bring us (or my sucessors!) fresh ideas, provided that they are consistent with the ITD objectives, and the JU will do so that they are duly considered, challenged and when possible, included! This is linked, of course, with my upper remarks about the necessary flexibility of CS2, and the implementation of these "thematic areas", which should fit the inclination of Academia?

There is a received idea that Clean Sky, being industry-led, is just about high TRLs. But this is wrong. Before reaching high TRLs you need to work at lower ones. I have statistics about this, which I already, publicly mentioned?

One more point: Academia and Research Organizations are not much talking together at strategic level. I would recommend to improve this.

On a separate note, I wish to emphasize the very active participation of academics in our Scientific Committee and, as external experts, in the annual reviews we are performing - together with senior engineers with an industrial background. This is very fruitful.

Q5: Do you think that the decrease of fuel prices could discourage the industry involvement in Clean Sky?

This is a relevant question... not particularly about Clean Sky, I guess, but also some national programmes, or a number of NASA-led projects in the US, etc. It did happen in the past that such short-term fluctuations had a strong influence on long-term R&D projects, a bit like farmers uprooting centenarian olive trees because of some oil price annual drop! But now things are different, the reaction against climate change is high on political agendas, in particular after COP21.  I cannot imagine that tomorrow, anyone will be tempted to consider that Clean Sky CO2-oriented projects (which are still the backbone of CS2 despite the addition of competitiveness as an explicit objective) can be slowed down or put on hold for this reason! I'm confident that all our Members are convinced of the strategic character of reducing CO2 emissions, as a sine qua non condition for the continued growth of air transport.

In any case, such situations show, once more, how important the continuity, the stability of the public funding is, implementing long-term policies and leveraging the private investment.

Q6: Is there any further message you would like to give?

I guess you will not be surprised if I add something about the future - beyond Clean Sky 2. The mid-term assessment of Horizon 2020 (and separately, Clean Sky 2) will, no doubt, trigger reflections and recommendations for what we may call "FP9" and "Clean Sky 3" - I do believe that there will be a Clean Sky 3! Among a series of other necessary improvements and evolutions, I wish to highlight that the current divide of aeronautical R&T between Clean Sky 2 (large majority) and the "Collaborative Research" is far from optimal and prevents from implementing any consistent, seamless approach. Beyond that, the Commission is putting emphasis on a transverse "STRIA", strategic transport research and innovation agenda, including aviation, and this makes sense; there will definitely be some significant (low TRL?) activities where aviation and surface transport may find common technological grounds. But this is one reason more to reconsider where and how to optimally fund an upstream, sectoral research, which remains more than ever needed, given the high specificities of aeronautics. Including the full journey of aeronautical research in Clean Sky is just common sense. Of course it would request a ring-fencing of the "upstream" research part within the total budget, in order to prevent it from being pumped out by shorter-term R&T contingencies; but this is obvious and quite easy to do. I don't see any reasonable objection to this.

I fully support the necessity of bringing the appropriate funding to the upstream research. Sometimes, I'm a bit concerned about the emphasis put on the concept of innovation when it is disconnected from research, and I'm afraid it is more and more often the case (I'm not speaking here of aeronautics, but more widely). Politicians want immediate outcomes, you know, a brilliant innovator innovates and one month after you have one hundred jobs created. At least in aeronautics, what I know is that long research journeys through the full TRL scale are the condition for those breakthroughs which at the end, will actually support European competitiveness and global sustainability, and consequently, create jobs. This must definitely be preserved. But this will be performed all the more efficiently if upstream research is really, concretely connected to the industrial strategies, while keeping its specificity. Isn't such an approach part of Clean Sky vocation?

Date posted: September 12, 2016, 9:34 am

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