Feeling useful? Europe offers up billions for R&D

European tech businesses just got a whole bunch of cash waved in front of them today — and the catch? They’ll have to be developing something genuinely useful to get it.

Every seven years, the European Union revises its budget and sets aside a certain amount for research and development. The next of these ‘frameworks’ will come into play from 2014-2020, and €8.1 billion ($9.9 billion) of the €10.8 billion R&D total went on offer on Monday.

But what sorts of research areas are getting this lovely moolah? In among the billions for ‘oceans of the future’ and healthcare research, there’s also €1.5 billion for ICT and a chunky €365 million for “technologies that will transform urban areas into sustainable ‘smart cities and communities'”.

As is usually the case with EU funding of this kind, the idea is to stimulate private sector investment too — for its €8.1 billion, the European Commission expects to see an extra €6 billion show up from private sources.

Here’s what research, innovation and science commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had to say:

“Knowledge is the currency of the global economy. If Europe wants to continue to compete in the 21st century, we must support the research and innovation that will generate growth and jobs, now and in the future. The high level of competition for EU funding makes sure that taxpayers’ money goes to the best projects that tackle issues that concern all of us.”

The money for creating ‘smart cities’ is of particular interest. We’re talking greentech, smart meters, connected cars and other devices. We know this is a hot area because the private sector, in the form of Intel et al, is already deep into researching this stuff.

So are public funds necessary for this?

They will certainly help, but there’s more to it than that. For one thing, there’s an interesting debate to be had about the sort of things that tend to get funded through the venture capital system, where long-term (and uncertain) R&D may look less attractive than a quick-returning e-commerce app.

Also, I have no intention of getting political here (that way lies pain for mere tech journalists), but it’s clear that this all forms part of a continental stimulus strategy:

“There will be no solution to the crisis without growth,” an EC Q&A reads. “There is evidence to suggest that, in general, member states that traditionally invested more in R&D and education weathered the recent economic turmoil better. Investments in R&D and education increase the chances to smooth the adverse impact of the crisis while building a basis from which to bounce back quicker when recovery takes hold.”

Whatever the motivation, there’s a lot of cash up for grabs. By early next year, two ‘future emerging technologies’ projects will have been chosen, getting €100 million funding in their first year. The likely candidates for that slice will “go beyond traditional ICT research and link up with specialists in other fields like health-, material- and neuro-sciences and neuro-robotics”, says the EC.

Frankly, speaking as a geek, as long as someone’s funding that kind of research, I’m just happy to look forward to the results.