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| ERA and Environmental Research

Because of the increasingly competitive and global nature of markets – including those for knowledge and qualified scientific personnel – each Member State of the European Union shares very similar socio-economic, environmental and scientific problems. They also frequently experience the same technological and industrial needs, while facing common challenges to their citizens’ quality of life.

The scenario described here provides a strong rationale for the setting up of a common market for research and technological development, as enshrined in the European Research Area (ERA). And in no sector are the benefits of coordinating research efforts more necessary than in those of sustainable development and global (climate) change.

Environment in the ERA

The European Research Area is a platform to regroup and intensify research efforts at the EU level but also at national and international levels. It is intended to guide and help coordinate Europe-wide research activities and innovation policy, thus securing each Member State’s economic and competitive future.

A major part of the ERA’s remit is to improve EU-wide co-operation and communication so that Europeans can make the most of the huge research potential in the region. The EU’s struggle to learn more about – and hopefully mitigate the negative effects of – urban pollution, ozone depletion and contamination of European rivers and coastal zones are some examples of how better collaboration benefits all nations and citizens.

These issues – as well as biodiversity and habitat loss, threatened ecosystems and cultural heritage, natural hazards and environmental risks to human health – can affect any one of the EU’s 25 countries. On their own, Member States struggle to tackle these problems because of their enormity, complexity and scale.

The ERA and EU research programmes

The Fifth Framework Programme (FP5) for research, which ran from 1998-2002, differs significantly from the current one – FP6 – as regards the way research projects are grouped, funded and administered, as well as the amount of funding made available.

In FP5, projects were arranged into complementary activities called ‘clusters’ as an initial attempt to stimulate the ERA. Among the benefits of clustering are improved synergies between projects, better dissemination of results, and the added value gained within individual projects – all contributing towards a ‘common market’ of research resources. FP5 also emphasised the importance of collaborative work in various so-called Thematic Networks and Concerted Actions, such as the EU-MEDIN disaster information network, the LUTR (Land use and transportation research: policies for the city of tomorrow) cluster which links several projects in the area of sustainable urban mobility, and CLEAR – one of the most important clusters on ‘air quality research’ that assembles 11 FP5 and FP6 projects.

In FP6, the emphasis shifted away from ‘the environment’ per se towards more broadly defined challenges in the field of Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems. New funding mechanisms have also been created – the Networks of Excellence (NoE) and Integrated Projects (IP)  – to breath life into the ERA. Of the €17.5 billion budget available for research in seven main thematic priorities, the Sustainable development theme is worth a total of €2.12 billion.

FP6 also contains a large sum to help ‘structure’ the ERA – which includes research and innovation activities, human resources and mobility, research infrastructures, and science and society activities – and to ‘strengthen’ the ERA through better coordination and policy development. Central to this is the ERA-NET scheme which was designed to step up the co-operation and coordination of research activities carried out at national or regional level in the Member States and by countries that have signed agreements associating them with the Union’s research Framework Programmes.

How does the ERA work?

Born out of the Lisbon Summit meeting of EU leaders in 2000 and a call by Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin for much greater research collaboration, the ERA was created in an attempt to leverage larger and more efficient results from combined research resources and coordinated activity at the EU level.

EU policy-makers then looked closely at how to enhance the Union’s research programmes to breathe life into the ERA – thereby mobilising complementary resources and capacity to attain common strategic goals and reduce the amount of duplication.

The aims of the ERA include:

  • Coordination of national and European funding programmes
  • Improved coherence of research activities
  • Greater mobility of researchers
  • Making Europe more attractive to researchers from other countries

The EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), running from 2002 to 2006, is now the main tool for implementing the ERA, and includes funding instruments designed especially to strengthen and develop cross-border research activities benefiting all Member States. These tools, including NoEs and IPs, as well as Specific Support Actions (SSAs) and joint EU and national programmes, help to integrate and harmonise the research carried out across the Union.

The ERA and GMES

All of Europe has a stake in protecting the environment. One of the major hurdles in the past – something the ERA initiative aims to overcome – has been a fragmented approach to research across the Union, especially in collecting accurate information, such as up-to-date weather and pollution reports. High-quality and timely information on climatic change is also vital to science and policy decision-making.
The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative represents, in simple terms, a concerted effort to bring data and information providers together with users so that they can better understand each other and agree on how to make environmental information available to the people who need it. A second specific goal is the creation of a 'European Shared Information System' for exchanging a wide range of useful information on environment and security matters. GMES also seeks to make this dialogue permanent by creating a specific authority and funding framework – raising the quality of Earth observation and the environmental information available to scientists, analysts and policy-makers. (see the theme Observing the Earth and GEO )


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