Europe's Joint Research Centres – Integrating Robust Science into EU Policy Making to Serve the Interests of European Citizens

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / OpEds & Commentaries
By Norbert Frischauf

JRC – the "Research Arm" of the European Commission

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is one of the Directorates General (i.e., departments) of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU). Like all other Directorates General such as Agriculture and Rural Development, Competition, Energy, Environment, etc., the JRC supports the European Commission in its objectives, which hold the Commission responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU's treaties, and the general day-to-day running of the EU.

 Figure1 small

What makes the JRC unique in this context however is its raison d'être. It aims "to provide customer-driven scientific and technical support for the conception, development, implementation, and monitoring of European Union policies."

The JRC fulfils this role by providing expert opinions on topics from natural science and engineering to socioeconomics, so decisions can be made and policies can be formulated on solid scientific evidence, preferably well ahead of time. The JRC does this in a fully independent manner, free of private and/or national interests. In an ever more complex world, driven by rapid technological developments, this service is clearly of significant value.

In aiming to characterize the JRC with a short buzzword, one could say that the JRC is the "research arm" of the European Commission and resembles a reference center for science and technology issues, serving the interests of EU Member States while remaining independent of special interests. The JRC is all this and more.

{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. Already registered? Login with your user details at the top right of our site. Thank you for your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}

The JRC Works in Seven Institutes throughout Europe

Given its extensive responsibilities, the JRC works on a broad range of issues including supporting consumer protection, security and crisis management, combating climate change, and contributing to energy security and the sustainable management of natural resources. All these are issues of great societal concern and highly relevant to the European Commission's recently launched "Innovation Union" strategy. The Innovation Union deliberately emphasizes the importance of research and innovation in working to make the EU more competitive, thereby aiding recovery from the economic crisis. The JRC can play a key role in this endeavor by, for example, studying the link between competitiveness, research, and industrial structure; carrying out pre-normative research; and contributing to standard setting and consistency of reference measurements and methods.

 The JRC performs its research activities in seven institutes distributed across five sites in Europe: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Spain. As its activities are customer-driven – and the prime customer is the European Commission – the JRC's headquarters are located in Brussels.

Figure 2

The JRC has approximately 2,750 permanent and temporary staff with an annual budget of approximately €350 million. Being a European reference center for science and technology issues, its activities in the policy areas of energy, transport, environment, climate change, competitiveness, safety of food and consumer products, security, crisis management, and nuclear safety and security are supported and directly financed within the JRC program of the 7th Framework Programme.

The 7th Framework Programme

The 7th Framework Programme (FP7) is the EU's chief instrument for funding research at the European level. FP7's research activities are of significant scale: For the seven-year period from 2007 to 2013 a total budget of €51 billion has been appropriated. The FP7 aims to achieve four specific goals:

  • To gain leadership in key scientific and technology areas
  • To stimulate the creativity and excellence of European research
  • To develop and strengthen the human potential of European research
  • To enhance research and innovation capacity throughout Europe.

As the FP7 approaches the end of its term, it is time to shape the follow-up program – not "FP8" as one might anticipate, but under the new visionary name: Horizon 2020 (click here for a short background information on Horizon 2020). Bearing in mind that the FP7's overall budget had already been decided and distributed along certain thematic priorities in November 2006, Horizon 2020 must now take new strategic directions into account: for example, the Europe 2020 Strategy, the Innovation Union, the European Research Area, and the European Commission's research priorities. Climate change remains a hot topic in EU policies and, being embedded in the Europe 2020 Strategy, it is bound to be an important issue within Horizon 2020.

Horizon 2020 is the financial instrument for implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness. Running from 2014 to 2020 with an envisioned budget of €80 billion, the EU's new program for research and innovation is part of a drive to create new growth and jobs in Europe.

Figure3 small

 Oriented around Seven Thematic Areas

In 2009, in an anticipatory move, the JRC undertook the challenge of reinvigorating the organization by creating a new vision and strategy for 2010-2020. This action was necessary to address the great societal challenges for which scientific and technological support requires more integrated, proactive, and cross-policy action on a European scale as well as globally.

This new strategy positions the JRC alongside the Horizon 2020 and the other strategies mentioned earlier. It envisages addressing grand challenges with increased attention on providing assessments of policy options to key customers, and recognizes the need for European research to be more issue-driven, capable of providing sustainable solutions in broad areas of Union interest.

At the heart of the JRC's strategic transition is the orientation of its activities toward seven thematic areas:

  • Thematic Area 1 – Towards an open and competitive economy
  • Thematic Area 2 – Development of a low-carbon society
  • Thematic Area 3 – Sustainable management of natural resources
  • Thematic Area 4 – Safety of food and chemicals
  • Thematic Area 5 – Nuclear safety and security
  • Thematic Area 6 – Security and crisis management
  • Thematic Area 7 – Reference materials and measurements.

In a time of diminishing fossil fuel resources and increasing difficulties in extracting the remaining resources (in addition to escalating fuel prices, perceived nuclear security issues, potential shortfalls in energy availability, complex market economics, and CO2-related global warming), energy-related issues are a high priority in the perception of the public and politicians. Turning our current energy system into a low-carbon/hydrogen economy will be one of the greatest challenges humanity will face in coming years. It is, however, a challenge we have to accept if we want to limit climate change to a certain acceptable level – such as the 2°C limit that the EU has defined as its target. In aiming to limit climate change to a global temperature rise of no more than 2°C (compared to preindustrial levels), we have to acknowledge that there is not much leeway: According to the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global surface temperature increased by 0.74 ± 0.18 °C during the 20th century. We had better start to focus on developing a low-carbon society sooner rather than later ...

The JRC-IET: Reference Center for Research along the Energy Value Chain

The JRC-IET, the Institute for Energy and Transport – located primarily in Petten in the Netherlands and partly in Ispra, Italy – is strongly involved in research in the second thematic area, the development of a low-carbon society. To cover the widest range possible, the JRC-IET carries out energy research from a variety of perspectives: energy technologies (market potential, efficiency, safety, cost), energy security, energy savings, emissions, and economic impacts. The energy technologies covered by in-house research include nuclear, hydrogen, fuel cells, wind, photovoltaics, and biofuels.

 Figure 4

"Wealth flows from energy and ideas," a quote attributed to William Feather (1889-1981) an American publisher and author. Even though it is several decades old, it still describes our modern-day society, which is built on scientific progress and intellectual property as well as on hard work and the utilization of energy.

Looking at Figure 4, it becomes evident that our society requires energy to create jobs and wealth. Energy – sometimes also called "the multiplier of man's work" – is one of the motors of our economy, but to be so requires that an infrastructure and processes be made available where energy is needed. All these processes involve losses which, at the end, sum up to such a value that Europe currently wastes nearly two thirds of its energy – an unacceptably high number, especially with our climate at stake.

The Importance of Energy to the EU

The EU has acknowledged the importance of energy and tagged it as one of its core activities. In light of energy security issues and climate change risks, the EU has issued its 20/20/20 strategy, with the aim of achieving a 20 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 1990 levels), a 20 percent share of EU energy consumption coming from renewable sources, and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency by 2020.

Recently, these goals have been translated into one of five headline targets in the new "Europe 2020" strategy, conceived to get Europe back on track for growth and competitiveness. The strategy is further broken down into "seven flagship initiatives," including "Resource-efficient Europe," which aims to decouple economic growth from the use of resources, supports the shift towards a low-carbon economy, increases the use of renewable energy sources, and promotes energy efficiency.

One has to be realistic, however, acknowledging that the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy will not be easily achieved; neither improving energy efficiency nor setting up emissions trading or an internal market for energy will provide enough impetus. It will require low-carbon energy technologies, more sophisticated materials, and smarter ways of connecting the grids to turn the Europe 2020 strategy into reality – at least for the energy part of it. And energy research is clearly key to achieving these developments.

Fusion Energy in 40 Years: a Strategic Energy Technologies Plan is Needed

If nuclear fusion lives up to its expectations, then humanity has a power source at hand that can deliver vast amounts of energy without emitting CO2, using fuel that is available in virtually unlimited amounts. However, even though a large part of FP7 energy funding is devoted to fusion research, no one expects this technology to help meet European climate and energy objectives before 2050. Yet clearly, these 40 years cannot be spent in a business-as-usual way. The EU currently depends on fossil fuels for 80 percent of its energy, with all the negative side effects such as greenhouse gas emissions, high price fluctuations, and (repeating) events of energy supply outages. Obviously, we have to find another solution.

In the end, the solution is easily written but difficult to implement: It calls for Europe to reinvent its energy system, with low-carbon technologies playing a key enabling role in the transition. Unfortunately market-ready, low-carbon technologies cannot be deployed yet on a large scale, so a certain amount of innovation will be required to foster development of low-carbon technology. Acknowledging this fact, the European Commission has initiated the Strategic Energy Technologies (SET) Plan, to meet the ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent (compared to 1990 levels), to have a 20 percent share of energy from low-carbon energy sources, and to have a 20 percent reduction in the use of primary energy by improving energy efficiency by 2020 – with the long-term goal of reducing emissions by 80-95 percent by 2050.

SET-Plan – the Technology Pillar of EU's Energy and Climate Policy

The SET-Plan aims to not only achieve these objectives, but to transform the entire energy system from the way we source and produce energy, to how we transport and trade it, to how we use it. Low-carbon energy technologies such as wind, solar photovoltaic, and biofuels must be affordable and competitive to be fully integrated into the energy economy.

 Figure 5

The SET-Plan outlines the current understanding on the potential of low-carbon technologies in the timeframe 2010-2050, as illustrated in Figure 5. The bubble size reflects the relative maximum energy potential of each technology. As depicted in the figure, several "waves" of technology deployment can be expected from now until 2050, each one offering new opportunities for construction of a low-carbon and sustainable energy system. The first wave, with a short-to-medium time horizon, is composed mainly of today's established and/or high-penetrating technologies, with a prominent focus on energy efficiency in buildings, transport, and industry. A second wave, ranging from medium- to long-term, includes advanced technologies such as advanced solar, second-generation biofuels, carbon capture and storage technologies; also, a later stage would add hydrogen and fuel cells in the transport sector and the next generation of renewable technologies, such as ocean technologies and generation IV nuclear reactors. These will be complemented by fusion technologies beyond 2050.

All in all, seven roadmaps have been proposed, built around a vision for the European energy system that, by 2020, will have already embarked on the transition to a low-carbon economy. These roadmaps put forward concrete action plans to raise the maturity of the concerned technologies to a level that enables them to achieve large market shares during the time before 2050. Major sectoral targets are:

  • Up to 20 percent of the EU electricity will be produced by wind energy technologies by 2020
  • Up to 15 percent of the EU electricity will be generated by solar energy in 2020. However if the DESERTEC vision is achieved, the contribution of solar energy will be higher, especially in the longer term
  • The electricity grid in Europe will be able to integrate up to 35 percent renewable electricity in a seamless way and operate along the "smart" principle, effectively matching supply and demand by 2020
  • At least 14 percent of the EU energy mix will be from cost-competitive, sustainable bio-energy by 2020
  • Carbon capture and storage technologies will become cost-competitive within a carbon-pricing environment by 2020-2025
  • While existing nuclear technologies will continue to provide around 30 percent of EU electricity in the next decades, the first Generation-IV nuclear reactor prototypes will be in operation by 2020, allowing commercial deployment by 2040
  • 25 to 30 European cities will be at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy by 2020.

Each low-carbon technology will face its own unique challenges, which will require dedicated research and innovation efforts. However, in order to provide the necessary data and methodologies needed to understand the challenges ahead and to support the decision making on the SET-Plan, a dedicated information system has been set up: the Strategic Energy Technologies Information System (SETIS)

Within SETIS, the technologies are described in Technology Map, which in combination with a Capacities Map (on resources and financing) and an interactive tool kit that includes an Energy Cost Calculator among other tools, makes SETIS a marvellous tool for scientists, researchers, industrialists, and decision makers.

"Get a good idea and stay with it ... do it and work it until it's done right."2

The quote from Walt Disney captures the essential truth of SETIS and the SET-Plan. Acknowledging the fact that all knowledge, technical data, scenarios, and strategies are children of their time and hence subject to change as science and technology progress, a tool such as SETIS is required to ensure that the SET-Plan is both collaborative and adaptable: collaborative so that several entities can insert their knowledge, and adaptable so that analyses can be updated whenever deemed necessary. SETIS, as an online tool, provides exactly these functionalities.

SETIS has been designed to offer validated, up-to-date information and analyses on energy technologies and technology innovation through a number of core activities: monitoring and reviewing of SET-Plan actions, capacities mapping, and technology mapping.


Because the JRC is heavily involved in monitoring and reviewing SET-Plan actions to support policy making at the EU level, as well as providing support for its strategic planning, conception, and implementation, the JRC leads and manages SETIS. However, it is not a 100 percent JRC-IET brainchild, but is built upon a scientific community involving a variety of actors such as the Member States, the European Industrial Initiatives, the research community, and industrial stakeholders.

The Capacities Map quantifies the current public and private research and development (R&D) expenditures on the priority low-carbon energy technologies in the EU. It provides an assessment of the current public and private R&D expenditures across the EU-27 in the nine low-carbon technologies identified by the SET-Plan as priority: wind energy, photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, bioenergy, carbon dioxide capture and storage, smart grids, nuclear fission, fuel cells, and hydrogen and nuclear fusion. Beyond this, the capacity-mapping exercise also reports on policies, programs, and institutional R&D capacities in the energy field.

Figure 7

The Technology Map provides key information and data on the status and prospects of low-carbon technologies with respect to EU policy goals. More specifically, it addresses the technological state of the art and anticipated developments, market and industry status and potential, barriers, needs, and synergies with other sectors. The data underpin the assessment of the effectiveness of the SET-Plan on technology development and deployment, and its impact on carbon dioxide emissions, security of supply, and competitiveness.

The Technology Map provides essential information used to define the "Technology Roadmaps" prepared by the Commission, building on in-depth dialogue with industry, the Member States (Steering Group on strategic energy technologies), the European Parliament, the research community, and the financial actors.

In addition, SETIS includes, within its tool kit, a "Bubble Graph" that gives a comprehensive overview of the status and potential of energy technologies in a time span covering 2010 to 2050, showing the potential leverage effect of the SET-Plan.

Figure 8 The following can also be accessed via the tool kit on the SETIS Web site:

The Energy Cost Calculator: This online tool calculates the foreseen cost of energy production and CO2 emissions (direct and indirect) in 2020 and 2030. It enables the comparative assessment of technologies for power and heat generation

BIOMAP: This online tool provides unique information on European Commission-funded and industrial projects on biofuel technologies and feedstocks, including legislation, quality specifications, and the key stakeholders.

Furthermore SETIS provides information about the seven European Industrial Initiatives, the ongoing low-carbon technology initiatives (fuel cells and hydrogen, fusion) and on the consultations with stakeholders. It also features roadmaps for R&D materials science and technology to enable the implementation of SET-Plan, Technology Information Sheets on each low-carbon technology, and the Implementation Plans of the European Industrial Initiatives, plus articles, announcements, and interviews with key energy players.

Because climate change is an issue that concerns the whole of mankind, global warming is indeed a global challenge. Robust science has gotten us to the point where we can finally identify the root cause of global warming; science-backed common sense has helped us to acknowledge the problem and define its possible solutions; and it will be science, common sense, and political will that enable us to develop, implement, and execute policies to work on the problem – not only in the interests of European citizens but of the whole world.


The author wishes to acknowledge Raymond Moss of JRC-IET, who provided important input and comments for the above article.


1. Figure 3 Source: Parry et al. "Millions at risk: defining critical climate change threats and targets." Global Environmental Change 11 (2001):181-3. Note that both y-axes should read "millions of people at risk."
| << Back to previous text |

2. Walt Disney, 1901-1966
| << Back to previous text |