10th Anniversary of the European Research Area

bridges vol. 24, December 2009 / Letter from Brussels

By Manfred Horvat

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Manfred Horvat
Manfred Horvat

Launched in March 2000 during the Lisbon European Council, the European Research Area (ERA) has developed into the central pillar for all European activities in the field of science and research. The policy for creating ERA was launched with the ambitious goals of achieving optimal use of scientific capacities and material resources, coordination of national and European policies, networking and creation of virtual centers, and free movement of people and ideas. The idea succeeded, and ERA is today the reference framework for European research policy issues.

This October, more than 600 participants from across all sectors, activities, and interests that have a stake in the European Research Area participated in the second ERA conference: national governments and administrations from the Member States and beyond; universities; research institutions; research-funding organizations; philanthropic bodies; civil society organizations; eminent researchers and experts; the list goes on. The conference participants hailed mostly from 32 European countries, but an additional 23 participants joined from Canada, China, Egypt, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, and the US.

The conference was characterized by intensive discussions in plenary and parallel sessions and provided an excellent impression of the high level of awareness about the importance of joint European actions in research and innovation, both in the present crisis and for addressing the grand challenges of the future.

Almost 10 years after the launching of the ERA concept, it is time to consider achievements and deficits. The European Research Area can only be developed in a joint effort between the Community and the Member States through clear commitment on both sides. Much has been achieved. However, major challenges lie ahead if the potential and strengths of European science, research, technological development, and innovation are to be fully utilized.

The role of the Framework Programs (FPs) for the development of ERA
FPs did and will continue to play the most crucial role in the development of ERA. The European Framework Program for research, technology, and development (RTD) is the largest competitive and collaborative research program worldwide.
In the last two decades alone, the EC RTD Framework Programs have supported the development of sustainable partnerships between researchers from public and private research organizations and industry. Trans-border cooperations utilizing complementary competences, capacities, and resources have become a matter of course, and have developed into a distinctive European strength, as compared to other regions in the world. In fact, to a certain extent, the Framework Programs have already made a reality of the European Research Area. There is hardly a region in the world with such well-developed links, interconnections, and cooperative activities.

Today we face grand challenges that require, in addition to trans-border cooperation, an interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral cooperation as a prerequisite to addressing the complex problems of climate change, sustainable energy, health, and demographic development, to name just a few. The ability to work in interdisciplinary teams is also a precondition for innovation. Interdisciplinary work must combine strong grounding in the individual disciplines with the capabilities and skills to work in teams involving different backgrounds. European researchers are well trained in working in teams of colleagues from different areas of expertise and from different organizations and cultures. This is one of the competitive advantages of European research.
For the future, it must be ensured that these capabilities and skills are further nurtured and developed. Thus, some important elements of the next Framework Program should be:

  • joint programs funded by Member States and the Commission addressing grand challenges
  • collaborative activities similar to the FP7 Cooperation program addressing enabling technologies and sciences such as biotechnology, information technology, materials and nano-technologies, as well as social sciences and the humanities
  • Excellence grants for beginning and advanced scientists organized by the European Research Council (ERC)
  • Substantive measures for developing the European research infrastructures
  • Industry-driven Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and science-driven Joint Research Initiatives (JRIs).

The next Framework program, which starts in 2014, should be open to the whole world, and participants from other countries should be fully funded when European consortia find their participation useful for the project and of mutual benefit. The openness of the Framework Program is certainly a strength and should be further developed in the context of the new Strategic European Framework for International Science and Technology Cooperation.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} The challenges of developing the Knowledge Triangle
It is most welcome that President Barroso has underlined the importance of the Knowledge Triangle of education, research, and innovation for the future of Europe as a fully developed knowledge society. However, making the knowledge triangle a reality and integrating the concept into universities, research organizations, businesses, and other settings is still a challenge. Strategies concerning the European areas for higher education, research, and innovation need to be further developed into an integrated strategy for the European Knowledge and Innovation Area. Also, at both the European and the national/regional level, stronger synergies, complementarity, coordination, and cooperation - as well as integration - have to be ensured between the three policy areas.

Such developments have to be supported by substantive financial provisions: striving for the 3 percent of GDP target for research expenditure and the 2 percent GDP target for higher education expenditure. Not only the gap in RTD expenditure, but also the underfunding of European universities, is a major limiting factor for European developments in research, higher education, and innovation.

As for the Member States, their efforts towards higher expenditures for research and higher education should be reinforced by increasing public spending as a driving force and an incentive for industry and the public sector as a whole. Therefore, reinterpreting the 3 percent target as a combined target of 1 percent of GDP public spending for research and 2 percent public spending for higher education might be a step in the right direction.

The Modernization Agenda for universities
European universities play a crucial role in ERA. In implementing the Modernization Agenda for universities, priority should be given to developing their autonomy while, at the same time, implementing provisions for assuring excellent quality in education, research, and innovation, as well as accountability. Mutual learning initiatives and strategic partnerships between universities striving for the implementation of their modernization agendas will be able to strengthen the higher education system in Europe. Promising initiatives are underway in that direction.

To ensure that universities are able to fulfil their role, investments in higher education and the implementation of the Modernization Agenda should be supported by combined national and European efforts for strengthening the attractiveness of ERA. National excellence initiatives for universities and public research organizations should be further developed, encouraging the formation of strategic alliances between higher education institutions and research organizations in order to develop a critical mass of institutions.

In addition to such national initiatives, a European excellence initiative should be oriented towards strengthening the global competitiveness of the European research and innovation system, complementing the above-mentioned national efforts. In that context, science-led Joint Research Initiatives (JRI) as strategic alliances between universities and research organizations should also become the institutional basis for long-term frontier research nurturing the European knowledge base and complementing the activities of the ERC, the Joint Technology Initiatives, and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

Another topic discussed during the conference was the conditions under which researchers can best perform their work in ERA. Attractive framework conditions are necessary, for example, continuing on the path of removing mobility barriers, or stronger promotional policies like the European Charter for Researchers and The Code of Conduct for Researchers at the level of Member States and institutions. Another issue urgently needing to be tackled is the portability of pension rights and social security questions. It is promising that joint action of member states' research, education and employment ministers are planned for improving the coordination in these areas.

In order to raise the excellence of the European Research Area, establishing the European Research Council was an important effort for strengthening excellence in research through Europe-wide competition for grants. The national research funding organizations are key actors and, for the future, close coordination and cooperation (and possibly even an appropriate form of integration) between the ERC and the national research funding agencies and councils should be considered based on common principles, rules, and procedures that support excellent research. Recent initiatives of the EUROHORCs , the European Heads of Research Councils, are promising moves in the right direction, reducing the fragmentation of research promotion and funding systems in Europe.

Another important topic was university-business cooperation: It has to be further developed in accordance with the requirements of open innovation approaches. Implementation of the "Responsible Partnering" guidelines and the respective Commission Communication and voluntary guidelines for knowledge transfer of public research organizations should be driven forward in joint efforts between universities, research organizations, and business. Close cooperation between the different parts of the Commission and the various ministries and funding organizations involved in these activities at the national level would be supportive.

Also, agreeing on and implementing the European patent is a must in this context. It is promising that, on December 4, EU industry ministers agreed to a package of measures that could pave the way for the European Community patent.

From ERA-NET to Joint Programming

In FP6, the ERA-NET scheme has opened new perspectives of European research coordination and cooperation. Mutual learning between program owners and managers is essential for the development of ERA. In joint activities, more than €1 billion in national research funds have been mobilized. The experiences from preparing and implementing joint calls for proposals and joint programs will be most important for the move towards future Joint Programming between Member States.

The Joint Programming Group of Member States has the important task not only of identifying areas for joint programs, but also of agreeing on common rules for participation. Achieving this will be an important step towards creating a conducive environment for joint activities and a key requirement for ensuring efficiency in implementation. In any case, the dangers of creating new forms of fragmentation must be avoided.

Based on deliberations during the first phase of the Joint Programming Group, the Council of Ministers agreed December 3 on the first three areas of collaborative actions:

  • Agriculture, food security, and climate change
  • Health, food, and prevention of diet-related diseases
  • Cultural heritage, climate change, and security.

In addition, a Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders was launched in the same meeting. It was also agreed that, in support of developing joint programs addressing grand challenges, the Commission and Member States should join forces for appropriate forecasting and planning activities.

Last but not least: ERA opening to the world

As mentioned before, the changes of the global knowledge landscape require that international cooperation becomes an integrated part of European and national strategies and programs. The Strategic European Framework for International S&T Cooperation sets the stage for dynamic developments in that direction. At the international level, European science and technology "speaking with one voice" in international S&T relations will become more and more important for safeguarding European competitiveness in research and innovation.

At the moment, international S&T cooperation of European actors is fragmented, and there are many parallel activities of member states often lacking critical mass - especially when addressing grand challenges There are clear indications that complementing the necessary competitive approach with more cooperative endeavours, and also information-sharing about developing joint strategic S&T intelligence, would strengthen the European position. In international partner countries, the S&T counsellors of the European Commission and the Member States have the potential to play a major role in these activities.

Beyond identifying areas for the initial activities regarding appropriate regional and thematic priorities, the Strategic Forum for International Cooperation (SFIC) is playing an important role and will provide the appropriate platform to involve stakeholders in creating awareness of the new approach and setting the stage for joint activities.

The second ERA Conference was also the last public appearance of Janez Potocnik in his role as European Commissioner for Research. He was able to end his mandate with an event that summarized the great achievements in European integration in the area of research during the last five years while, at the same time, providing promising perspectives on the future development of the European Research Area.


The author, Manfred Horvat, is professor of “International and European Research and Technology Cooperation” at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien).