| Tackling the environment together
Joint research opens up the horizon
The underlying logic behind the ERA-NETs, is to reduce the fragmentation of research efforts at the national level and work towards the creation of a pan-European research area, as outlined in the Lisbon Strategy. While EU-level research financing is geared towards this goal through establishing multinational research projects, the ERA-NET scheme follows a different track – encouraging national and regional research programmes in similar fields to join and collaborate with greater coordination.
The ERA-NET scheme was a novelty of FP6 and 15 ERA-NET projects were set up during FP6 in the environment field. These cover five main areas of research:
- Marine-related: AMPERA, BONUS, ECORD, Marifish and MARINERA.
- Soil and water-related covers three ERA-NET projects: EUWI, IWRM-NET, and SNOWMAN.
- Climate change and natural hazards also covers three projects: CIRCLE, CRUE, and EUROPOLAR.
- Biodiversity-related, in which there are two projects: BIODIVERSA and the recently launched NET BIOME.
- Horizontal environmental, those that either focus on horizontal aspects of environmental research or have a multidisciplinary approach that includes environmental concerns. There are two in all: SKEP and URBAN-NET.
When the calls were made for ERA-NETs in FP6, no predefined topics of research were stipulated. In that respect, the ERA-NETs followed a ‘bottom-up’ approach in forming a single pan-European research area: it is up to individual Member States (or, more precisely, to their research funding bodies) to find mutual areas of research interest, not the European Commission.
A new ERA-NET project on Environment and Health will be created
DIFFERENT LEVELS OF INTEGRATION
Feedback from the ERA-NETs so far shows different aims and benefits of the initiative. The principal advantage of the projects, as cited by most respondents in a survey conducted at the end of 2006, is the possibility ERA-NETs offer to exchange good practices. Other frequently identified strengths of the ERA-NETs are that they help to avoid ‘overlap’ (duplication in research) and provide access to expertise, knowledge and information from other countries.
Many of the ERA-NETs also have the specific aim of getting more countries involved in projects. The CRUE ERA-NET, which brings together fifteen national agencies concerned with flooding in ten countries, is a good example of this (see article in the Research Highlights chapter). Many are also looking beyond Europe – ECORD, for example, which focuses on ocean research drilling, has developed close relations with research institutions in the USA and Japan.
A more ambitious goal is the possibility of launching joint calls. A major justification for ERA-NETs is the idea of achieving critical mass and economies of scale. This means that in the event that no one national funding agency is able to fund a specific research project, it can be contemplated if the research is conducted jointly; for example, in the case of polar research (the focus of EUROPOLAR) which can be notoriously expensive.
To date, five of the environmental ERA-NETs have launched joint calls for proposals. Most recently, SKEP concerned with environmental protection launched its first pilot joint call in June 2007 on sustainable consumption and production, with an indicative budget of €500 000. Such joint calls frequently face challenging administrative barriers in the home countries, since there is often no legal framework for funding transnational research.
The result has, more often than not, been the creation of ‘virtual pots’, where the research project is transnational but each partner funds the participants from its own country. The aim is to move from ‘virtual pots’ to ‘common pots’, where all partners contribute to research funding, regardless of the nationalities of research participants. However, a mixture between the two is likely to be the interim solution.
To envisage further joint calls, the Commission has introduced the ERA-NET Plus instrument, which means it has the option of topping up the funding of ERA-NET joint research projects by up to a third. So far, the BONUS project, which brings together research funding institutions from all the countries that border the Baltic sea (and focused on Baltic sea research), is the most advanced project in terms of joint research financing – and it will be the first of the environment ERA-NETs to launch an ERA-NET Plus call.
The ultimate aim is to achieve full integration, whereby national research programmes are joined together in areas of common interest. Such research projects are called Article 169 projects, after the article in the European Treaty that allows the European Community to participate in joint research programmes. Article 169 projects require a lot of coordination and can only be authorised by the European Parliament and Council, so naturally it is not an easy status to achieve – to date, only one Article 169 project has been approved – the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Programme (EDCTP).
Further coordination and integration is the primary aim for most environmental ERA-NETs, and the new Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) may support them in this by re-opening the topic – if they have been doing a good job and if they have expressed a willingness to continue – as their expiry dates approach (most are due in 2008 and 2009). In the first call for proposals of FP7, new environment ERA-NETs are invited in the areas of environment and health, and cultural heritage, research fields that have not been covered with the ERA-NET scheme so far. No environmental ERA-NET topics are currently planned for 2008. In the meantime, the benefits of joined up coordination and collaboration will continue.