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Interview of Dr. Dietrich Knoerzer, former senior Scientific Officer in the Aviation Unit of the Directorate of Transport Research within the Directorate General for Research & Innovation

For the first newsletter of 2017, the EASN Association is pleased to host an interview with Dr. Dietrich Knoerzer who retired after been part for 28 year of the European Commission's aeronautics research programme.


Q1: Please allow me to start with a personal question. You have been part of the European Commission's aeronautics research programme since Day 1. Today, almost 28 years later, how does one feel before retiring and putting all that behind?


If you compare the situation for European research in aeronautics in 1989, when everything started, with today, you can observe the enormous development not only in the volume of the budget but also in the impact that European aeronautics research achieved. For me it is a certain satisfaction to have been actively involved in this development and its achievements.
At the begin the small aeronautics team of the European Commission faced a substantial criticism of the strategically oriented specific aeronautics research on European level, not only within the Commission, where a broad bottom-up technology approach was favored, but also by several major Member States that partly regarded the EU initiative as a certain competition to national technology programmes.
Today this has changed completely, and the European research in aeronautics and air transport is well recognized and established in the Research Framework Programmes. For me this means that our goal of 1989 to work for a significant European aeronautics research programme with a common budget for all participants could be achieved.


Q2: ACARE has set a series of highly ambitious goals for aviation for the year 2050.
a) As 2017 is just around the corner, how realistic do you think the goals for 2020 are?
b) What has to be done (in terms of funds, research instruments etc.) so as to achieve the objectives and vision set for 2050?

Ad a): The goals of Europe's Vision for 2020 were and still are quite ambitious. For 2020 most of these goals will be achieved only in laboratory scale or by technology demonstration. Until these achievements are implemented in the operational civil air transport, many more years will be needed. But significant improvements, e.g. in specific fuel consumption, for aircraft noise or for aviation safety, can be observed already today.
Ad b): For meeting the even more ambitious goals of Flightpath 2050 continuous and enhanced efforts in research and innovation will be needed also in future. In my view the research needs to focus on maturing and implementing known promising technologies such as laminar flow, ultra-efficient aero-engines, advanced composite structures, etc. and on novel break-through technologies for investigating their potential.
Beside the appropriate technology funding by industry and public institutions - on European and on national level - the political and economic boundary conditions must be set to enable the necessary developments. For example, for ensuring the needed technological developments in aviation a qualified workforce of engineers and researchers has to be educated (important role of the universities), the development of the appropriate research infrastructures and of the needed design tools must be supported. Further the legal boundary conditions on international level have to be established on European but also on a global scale, e.g. through ICAO. Here I have in mind a global emission trading scheme, which will provide clear incentives for CO² emission reduction or impose binding safety regulations for the future air transport.
All aviation stakeholders are well advised to take the ambitious Flightpath 2050 goals seriously for ensuring a prosperous air transport in the long term.


Q3: Starting with a budget of 50 million Euros about 3 decades ago, today almost 7 billion Euros are reinvested in the frame of HORIZON 2020 in civil aeronautics R&D, and all major aeronautics and air transport stakeholders (industry, academia, research centres) are greatly involved. Can you make a brief but critical assessment of the impact that the EC Programme for Aeronautics Research has had? To make it short: Do you feel that the European taxpayers' money has been well-placed?

Indeed we had an impressive increase of the European research funding for aviation from the beginning until now. At begin this allowed to only support selected technology areas, while today all important technology fields can be covered by the different support measures.
In the first years of European aeronautics research there was a clear catalyst effect through the limited number of joint research projects: Europe's aeronautics stakeholders learnt sharing know-how as far as possible and to achieve jointly progress in the technological development of key areas. Today they have experience how to cooperate in research even with partners who are competitors on the market. Such skills do not exist in other parts of the World. Therefore countries outside Europe (e.g. Brazil, Canada, China, Japan or Russia) are eager to cooperate in aeronautics with European partners within the EU Framework Programmes.
Despite the fact that the EU research funding for aeronautics is modest - even today - compared with the development costs of new civil aircraft or their components, European research projects developed key technologies that could find their way into new aircraft (A380 or A350) or advanced aero-engines (CFM, Rolls-Royce,...).
In my view until now tax payers' money was by majority well invested for aviation research.


Q4: You have always been a great supporter of International cooperation and cohesion within the EU that would allow the incorporation of smaller countries. How satisfied are you with what has been achieved so far in this regard? Is today the level of International Cooperation satisfactory? Has the target of achieving cohesion in Research and Innovation in Europe been successfully served?

Transnational and multi-national cooperation and cohesion are essential for the development of Europe.
The Research Framework Programmes of the EU enable this through the access to common funding sources for all participants. In Europe the aeronautics industry is traditionally concentrated in the large Member States and some other countries. For interested organizations from Member States without major aeronautics industry it was and still is not easy to become involved in the aeronautics technology programmes. Often the universities are the first that are able to join European projects in aviation. But they participate normally because of specific skills and not primarily for being from a small country.
Although the cohesion of Europe made progress in the sector of aviation research, surely more can be achieved. In some countries (e. g. Greece, Ireland and Portugal) a degree of aerospace engineering had been introduced already in the 90ties. Some high-tech start-up companies emerged in the surrounding of the universities. Qualification measures on national level can help to make industry and research institutions fit for international cooperation. Here Austria represents a good example.


Q5: Recently, you have been awarded by EASN, for your continuous support to the European Academia and for your great effort to face Academia's fragmentation. What else do you think should be done at this point so that European universities assume their proper role within Europe and within aeronautics-related upstream research?

Allow me first a remark about EASN. With EASN for the first time the academic aeronautics research community got a voice that was heart on European level (e. g. in ACARE). In my view, EASN would be well advised to further develop this academic network with its interest groups in the main aeronautics disciplines.
The classical role of universities is the academic education of students to qualified engineers and scientists. Research activities represent an important element of this education process. The complexity and challenges of modern aeronautics technologies often set limits to the research capabilities of individual universities and their laboratories. Here research clusters and links with research centres and industry including SME can been seen as solutions to overcome the own limits. Appropriate funding on European level is surely the most desirable solution for such cooperation that often works transnational. The development of specific skills and excellence helps universities to become recognized partners in European research networks and joint projects.
On the other hand today the labour market for young academics is Europe - language barriers become often secondary or temporary issues for the young generation. International cooperation and links to industry enhances the attractiveness of a university for qualified students.


Q6: Shortly before you pull-out, are there any further messages you would like to get across to the readers of this interview?

For future research in aeronautics and air transport I can see two top priorities:

  • The greening of future aviation, in particular research for a drastic reduction of CO2 emission, needs to get high attention, because in my view the prosperous high-tech sector aviation has to become a technological front runner in the fight against global warming.
  • In the view of the rising global competition, Europe's aviation stakeholders need to continue and even to enhance their joint effort for research and innovation in all key sectors for ensuring their competitive position in the World and by this ensure highly qualified employment in aviation within Europe.
My second message is addressed to the preparation of the next EU Framework Programme for research and innovation, which will start in 2020. For aviation research, I strongly recommend a well balanced approach, which covers all necessary research elements from up-stream and break-through research - here I see a special role for the universities - via the 'classical' collaborative research up to large scale technology validation and demonstration.
My last message goes to the students and young researchers: Aviation is a fascinating discipline with many interesting areas. If you maintain your enthusiasm as researcher, engineer or aviation operator, it will help you to become successful and to keep your -fun- in your profession.

Date posted: January 9, 2017, 10:00 am

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