“We see [science and technology] as a necessary tool for overcoming our problems and for creating prosperity for our citizens”

Looking at the horizon

Leonidas Karapiperis, Minister-Counsellor, Head of the Science and Technology Section at the EU Delegation to Japan


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

Since he was a boy growing up in Thessaloniki, Greece, Leonidas Karapiperis has been fascinated by science. He studied mathematical physics at the University of Sussex, and then did his PhD in microelectronics at Cornell University. After seven years of research in the private sector, Karapiperis took a position at the European Commission in 1988. Following a stint as press and cultural counsellor at the Delegation of the European Commission to Japan between 1995 and 1999, he returned to Brussels to work on the EU’s research policy. He acted as an observer on the CERN Council and was the representative of the European Commission on the OECD Global Science Forum. In 2014, Karapiperis took up his current position as minister-counsellor and head of the Science and Technology Section at the EU Delegation in Japan.

Can you tell me about the Science and Technology Section at the EU Delegation in Tokyo?

We facilitate and mediate cooperation between Europe and Japan. In order to do that, we need to understand both our home system and the local system. We keep a close eye on science, technology and innovation developments here, and send reports on major developments. We also interact with policymakers and a lot of the leaders of research organisations in Japan to explain to them how our system works and how researchers can become involved in our EU programmes. Public outreach on the benefits of cooperation is another important priority for us.

How are the EU and Japan cooperating on science and technology?

Since March 2011, we’ve had in force a science and technology cooperation agreement. One axis is on deepening strategic cooperation through frequent consultation at multiple levels. Another involves taking a thematic approach for promoting activities in key strategic areas. This looks at where we want to cooperate, what the big issues are — advanced materials, aeronautics, ICT or Arctic research. Then, there’s what we call framework conditions for collaboration. No matter what, a researcher needs to have access to suitable funding mechanisms, and we work on those. The EU’s framework programmes have been running since 1984. Now we are in the eighth, which is called Horizon 2020.

Could you give me some details about Horizon 2020?

It’s the European Union’s comprehensive research and innovation programme. It helps fund everything from individual fellowships for researchers to collaborative research among large consortia to tailor-made support for SMEs that are innovating. Horizon 2020 has three pillars: excellent science, industrial leadership and societal challenges. Almost 65% of its projects have to do with sustainability.

The overall EU budget for the financial period from 2014 through 2020 is roughly €1 trillion, and close to €80 billion of that is for Horizon 2020, an impressive 8%. And it’s not only the 28 EU member states that are contributing. There are 16 associate countries — including Switzerland, Norway, Israel, Ukraine and Tunisia — that have joined this common scientific endeavour. It is the biggest, most comprehensive programme in the world for research and innovation. And, quite importantly, it is open to collaboration with the entire world.


Why is the EU investing so much in innovation?

There was a big increase — about 30% in real terms — between the budget of Horizon 2020 and the previous framework programme. That decision was made in 2013, after the debt crisis. It was a time when the big political priority for Europe was to get back on the path of sustainable growth and create jobs. At that time, the overall budget was constrained, but the part that got the biggest increase was Horizon 2020. It was a clear recognition at the highest level by all member states that research and innovation is key for economic growth, sustainability and addressing societal challenges. We see it as a necessary tool for overcoming our problems and for creating prosperity for our citizens. But also, we are recognising the value of science as such, the pursuit of knowledge. We believe in curiosity, to discover why something is — just this why, the pure why.

You will not have great inventions unless you have a love for science. That’s the reason Horizon 2020 spends a little more than one-third of its budget on “excellent science”, which is mostly bottom-up research.

How does funding for EU–Japan collaboration work?

When it comes to developed countries, like Japan and the US, we do not fund them. We tell their governments, if your scientists wish to join, you should fund them. But most of the Japanese programmes get funding only if they cooperate domestically. So, we try to convince them to allocate more funds to international cooperation, with some good results.

We have a mechanism called Joint Calls where we decide on a topic and do a call for proposals in Europe and Japan at the same time. We invite European and Japanese scientists to come together and make a common proposal. And then the Europeans, through Horizon 2020, fund the European scientists and the Japanese are funded through a ministry or a funding agency in Japan. The Japan Science and Technology Agency has also developed its own co-funding scheme.

What are some examples of Joint Call projects with Japan under Horizon 2020?

The BigClouT project is on smart cities. A consortium of organisations in the ICT area from Europe and Japan is involved — NTT and the University of Tsukuba from Japan, CEA from France, and the Institute of Communication and Computer Systems from Greece, to name a few. There are two cities in Europe, Grenoble and Bristol, and then there are two in Japan, Tsukuba and Fujisawa, that are being used in pilot projects. The idea is to enable cities to tackle many of the problems they have with vital functions, like traffic and energy systems, through the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, which can be implemented across the whole city network. It involves, in a major way, the citizens themselves. Things are not being developed and then presented to citizens; it is an important co-creation, so to speak.

An excellent example of applied research is the VISION project, about air transport safety and safer navigation. The objective is to investigate, develop and validate smarter aircraft guidance, navigation and control solutions, and to automatically detect and overcome some critical flight situations. The results will be shared among air traffic controllers in Europe and Japan.

What happens after 2020?

We don’t know precisely what will be in the next framework programme, FP9, but there will be a bigger emphasis on facilitating innovation and, in particular, disruptive innovation. The sustainable development goals adopted by the UN will be one of the guiding principles of all the activities in FP9, and the involvement of citizens will be even bigger. The EU Parliament has already said the budget should be no less than €100 billion. 

“You will not have great inventions unless you have a love for science”