European Research Area

Breaking conventional mindsets

With the Seventh Framework Programme underway, on 4 April 2007 Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner in charge of Research and Science, committed himself to redefining the European Research Area (ERA), which had been somewhat left on the backburner. According to Bertil Andersson, outgoing Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF) and Vice-President of EURAB (1), “Member States continue to see science in purely national terms”.

Bertil Andersson – Risk-taking is not sufficiently encouraged, as much at the European level as at the Member State level. Bertil Andersson – “Risk-taking is not sufficiently encouraged, as much at the European level as at the Member State level.”
Researcher working on one the beamlines of the ESRF synchroton ring in Grenoble (FR). In operation 24 hours a day, ESRF hosts scientists from all over the world and from a range of disciplines. The facility is an example of European excellence.  ©ESRF Researcher working on one the beamlines of the ESRF synchroton ring in Grenoble (FR). In operation 24 hours a day, ESRF hosts scientists from all over the world and from a range of disciplines. The facility is an example of European excellence.
©ESRF

The idea of creating an ERA has been defined as a key objective for the EU research policy for seven years now. How can you explain the delay in its implementation?

Bertil Andersson: In 2000, when the idea of creating the ERA was introduced, the whole of Europe agreed that it was a decisive step forward. But, after all these years, ERA has not really gone beyond the conceptual stage and is only just starting to take shape now. The majority of States continue to organise their scientific research policies in terms of national priorities. This means that Sweden, for example, will be more willing to allocate budgets to its own research institutions, since it is more tempting to reap tangible benefits at national level.

The problem comes, therefore, more from the traditional way in which States work than from a lack of will on their part. Within European laboratories, you can see a sort of “mental conflict”. On one hand, the ERA is well perceived, enabling an increase in international collaborations and therefore in research scope, quality and resources. On the other hand, with the current fragmenting of policies on science, researchers remain confined to national financing, which they need to ensure that their research continues and which is straightforward. Their national system is familiar, while the European one is often seen as too complex.

How can we change European mindsets?

The Green Paper; published by Commissioner Potocˇnik, is a timely boost for this. It aims to directly involve different R&D actors in deciding which actions must be undertaken in order to make the ERA a reality. Today, the vision of this “single market” for research still remains in very broad political terms. But, with the current global economic pressure, attitudes will have to evolve.

At the outset, the ERA was a ‘top-down’concept with its direction worked out by the Commission and proposed to Member States and the European scientific world. Did the research community adopt this objective and pressure national institutions to make the ERA a reality?

Yes, in the case of some major recent initiatives. No, in as far as it remains trapped in this kind of mental divide, which I explained before. The creation of the European Research Council (ERC) and the independent financing of its activities in FP7, in December 2006, resulted from grassroots pressure on political leaders. The idea of this Council was launched by the scientific community in 2000 and, initially, politicians were extremely sceptical about it. However, after persevering, researchers managed to convey the potential benefits of financing fundamental research and, in particular, its impact on the creation of scientific excellence in Europe. Another sector in which the European Science Foundation was very active was in specific proposals relating to European investment in infrastructures.

Nevertheless, the willingness of scientists to promote the development of the ERA among their national bodies often depends on their area of research. Physicists, for example, are very demanding, as their discipline requires the use of extremely expensive technologies. In less technical fields or in the social sciences, the lower budgets required are more in line with national resources. As a result, there is less pressure.

A refrain constantly uttered with regards to research in Europe is its weakness in innovation. How would you explain this ?

This is a key question and I would link it to the creation of the ERC, as major technological advances come initially from fundamental research. Even if everyone knows that in unexplored scientific domains there is a higher risk of not discovering anything at all.

Yet, while intending to make research more innovative, the problem with the European system of project evaluation is that it tends to suppress risk-taking. Required to submit incessant activity reports, on the basis of which funding is continued or not, projects in Europe have to be more ‘results oriented’ than elsewhere.

This, paradoxically, incites scientists to play the lowest risk card, by opting for better-known research fields in which they are almost certain of meeting this criterion. Risk-taking is not sufficiently encouraged, as much at the European level as at the Member State level. This can doubtless explain why Americans receive more Nobel Prizes than Europeans.

Are obstacles to the construction of the ERA also linked to insufficient investment in both education and the promotion of scientific careers?

The exodus of European graduates cannot be explained solely by the personal economic gain that they find. Certainly, the aim of committing 3% of GDP of each Member State to scientific research is vital in halting this phenomenon. However, the lack of academic freedom on offer to young people contributes just as much to the ‘brain drain’ as the lack of public financing in education and research.

Landing a post-doc in the United States means not only having a greater chance of receiving significant funding, but also the possibility of carrying out independent research with major responsibilities. It is obvious that these young researchers are reluctant to come back to Europe where, despite their advanced training, they are often only invited to become part of a team under the guidance of a more experienced leader. Add to this lack of auto nomy the low salaries and you will understand why so many of them pursue a career elsewhere.

Julie Van Rossom

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From Strasbourg to Singapore

Bertil Andersson directed the European Science Foundation (ESF) and was a member of EURAB (the Commission’s advisory body for the EU’s research policy) from 2004 to 2007. The Swedish biochemist has just left his European position to take the post of Provost at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“My departure does not translate as a lack of interest in Europe. And the day that the ERA finally becomes a reality, I’ll be among the first to jump for joy,” he explains. “But things are moving at an incredible pace in Asia. Significant investments, both private and public, are devoted to research. I have opted for a job that will enable me to experience this “Asian revolution” at close range. Mobility, for a scientist, is vital for ‘Lifelong Learning.’”



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